When Natasha Rupa committed to play volleyball for the University of Winnipeg Wesmen last spring, her goal was to learn the team’s system, focus on her studies and maybe get a little bit of court time.
It didn’t take her long to surpass those expectations as the 18-year-old freshman from Shoal Lake has quickly climbed the depth chart and is now the starting setter for the Canada West conference squad. It takes a lot for a rookie to run the Wesmen offence, but Rupa is enjoying the opportunity.
"The most challenging thing has been learning the ropes," said Rupa, who admitted it was also a big jump academically to go from a kindergarten to Grade 12 school with 165 students to becoming a biology major in university. "There’s so much at the start and Di (Winnipeg head coach Diane Scott) has been trying to teach me and I’ve been trying to get a handle on. I’ve adapted pretty well to the game. My teammates are really encouraging and really great."
Rupa, who loves seeing Canada while playing competitive volleyball, brought a lot of experience with her to the Wesmen. The 5-foot-8 Rupa was named a tournament all-star at the 2011 provincial A varsity girls’ high school volleyball championship and helped guide her Shoal Lake Sharks to a silver medal that year. She was named a graduating all-star last season and was on Manitoba’s under-18 provincial team that finished fourth at the National Team Challenge Cup last summer.
Rupa came to Winnipeg hoping to learn as much as she could in her first season and received some playing time early in the season backing up Ellina Domnidou, who had taken over from Brandon’s Hope Schneider as the team’s starting setter.
However, Domnidou was injured when the Wesmen hosted the six-time defending national champion UBC Thunderbirds in November and Rupa was handed the offence. The Wesmen took the Thunderbirds to five sets, and Rupa showed that she was a viable candidate to start.
Since the Christmas break, Rupa has started five of the six matches for the Wesmen, winning a pair of them, while Domnidou has been moved to outside hitter.
"It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m glad that Di feels confident in me to get the job done," Rupa said. "It’s definitely been a lot to take in and a lot of focus, but it’s going well."
Rupa has had a solid season so far, appearing in 17 of the Wesmen’s 18 matches and starting seven of them. She also has a team-high 342 assists to go along with her eight aces, 59 digs and 10 blocks.
The Wesmen, however, are 6-12 and two matches back of the final playoff spot with four left to play. Rupa would like to make the playoffs this season, but her team, which also includes first-year middle Ashley Penner of Brandon, will be in tough as they still have to play the third-ranked Trinity Western Spartans in Langley, B.C.
Regardless of where Winnipeg finishes in the standings this season, Rupa knows her experience in her first season with the team will pay huge dividends down the road.
"It’s a big benefit," she said. "I’ve learned so much and it’s only going to continue to build from here."