They’re undefeated on their home court, but the College of the Rockies women’s volleyball team will undoubtedly have that record threatened over the weekend.
After a 1-3 road trip to the Lower Mainland, the Avalanche are tasked with defending their home court against the powerhouse Vancouver Island University Mariners on Friday and Saturday.
The Mariners were last year’s PACWEST Provincial Champions and have started this season with a perfect 6-0.
According to Avs head coach John Swanson, while home court advantage will help, VIU will provide a formidable challenge.
“We know VIU is going to be tough, they are every year,” Swanson said. “The first part of the match will really be critical to see where we are compared to them… we need to come out with intensity, [but] still stay within ourselves.”
Despite the Mariners perfect record, plenty of their opponents have been competitive with them. The Camosun Chargers, who the Avs swept in their home openers, took VIU to five sets and the 0-6 Columbia Bible College Bearcats did the same.
While VIU defeated COTR in three of four meetings last season, the Avs don’t intend to approach them differently than any other team.
“We respect VIU, but we’re not intimidated by any team and whenever we’re at home or on the road, we’re going to challenge our players to play at the highest level,” Swanson said. “[We just have to] walk into any gym with confidence.”
The COTR gym, however, is a special place for the Avs players.
“I hope that [our home crowd will have] a really big impact,” said first year outside hitter Taylor Whittall. “Their energy is amazing. I’ve never felt anything like it before [and] it really changes our game.”
Through her first month of post-secondary volleyball, Whittall has been one of the team’s top rookies. Playing in 14 sets, the freshman from Roberts Creek, B.C. has 32 kills and 39 digs so far this year.
Joining Whittall in early season success has been some expected names including fourth-year power hitter Alexa Koshman and second year libero Megan Clark.
After five matches, Clark has earned a spot amongst the best defensive players in Canada. According to statistics from the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association, she is fifth in the country in digs per set with a 4.24 average.
“Megan has been great.[She’s] very strong and defensively puts herself in a good position. It’s not a surprise that she’s way up there in digs,” Swanson said. “We’ll look for her to continue her great play as she gets her opportunities to showcase what she can do. [I hope she] just stays relaxed and confident.”
Koshman had a stellar opening weekend, but then was sidelined for the team’s road trip with a foot injury. While her vocal energy had an impact from the bench, her return to the floor will be a boon to the Avs.
“[Koshman’s return will] help a lot,” Whittall said. “She not only brings really good skill to the team, [but] she’s such a presence on the court. We missed that last weekend.”
In just two matches this year, Koshman already has 31 kills and 22 digs and was named the PACWEST’s women’s volleyball athlete of the week in mid-October.
While VIU will certainly be game-planning for Koshman, COTR will be paying special attention to a few players on the other side of the court.
When asked about special talent on the Mariners, the name that immediately jumped to Swanson’s mind was fourth year right side hitter Mikayla Wagner, a member of the 2015 PACWEST All-Rookie team and a past CCAA National Champion.
“I’ve said for the past two to three years [that] I think Wagner is one of the best players, not only in the PACWEST, but in Canada,” the Avs coach explained. “[She’s a] phenomenal player. As a coach, it’s challenging to coach against her, but I really appreciate her skillset.
“It will be a big challenge for us to compete against the whole team, but [we need to] really make sure that [we pay attention to] Mikayla [and] try to just dig as many as we can and block as much as we can against her.
Another familiar name to Swanson and the COTR community is Sarah Wood, a setter for the Avs from 2015 to 2017 who transferred to VIU over the offseason.
“She’s coming back to a gym where she is very comfortable [and] I expect that she’ll play very well,” Swanson said of Wood. “As competitive people, we obviously want to play at a high level, but I will be very happy for her too that she’s getting a great opportunity with VIU.”
The women’s Avs will kick off the weekend with a 6:00 p.m. match against VIU on Friday that will be followed by the men at 8:00 p.m. They will then have a rematch at 11 a.m. on Saturday with the men once again following them at 1:00 p.m.
The pair of back-to-back matches will be the Avs last home contests of the first semester, with the team heading on the road next week to close out the calendar year against Columbia Bible College and the University of Fraser Valley.