By Lee Dorner (Sports Information Assistant)
January 16, 2014, VANCOUVER (ISN) – It was a tough start to 2014 for the UBC Thunderbirds men’s volleyball team last week, as they were without the services of top outside hitter Ben Chow as they ran into a sneaky-tough UBC Okanagan team that played much better than their record.
The ‘Birds looked lost in their first outing without Chow, going down in straight sets, before coming out with a much more determined effort in game two, pushing the Heat to the limit in every set only to be edged in five for another loss.
GAME TIMES (both games at War Memorial Gymnasium)
Friday, Jan. 17
8 p.m. – No. 7 Brandon at No. 5 UBC
Saturday, Jan. 18
7 p.m. – No. 7 Brandon at No. 5 UBC
Coping with key injuries has been a recurring theme for the T-Birds this season. They played a big chunk of their early conference schedule without starting setter Milan Nikic, and they have been missing last year’s top hitter, Jarrid Ireland, for the entire season. Even after being swept last week the T-Birds sit fourth in the conference at 9-5, which is no small feat given the personnel problems they’ve faced.
But unfortunately for UBC, the Canada West conference doesn’t give extra points for degree of difficulty, so despite the injuries, they will need to find a way to avoid slip-ups like they had last weekend to capitalize on what has been a successful season so far. Only three games separate them from eighth place right now, so even a playoff spot is far from guaranteed at this point with eight games left on the schedule.
This series against Brandon looms particularly large in terms of its implications on the standings because the Bobcats come in having lost two games last weekend as well, dropping them to 7-7. That puts them in a playoff spot for now, but still chasing home court advantage for round one, which comes with the top four spots. A sweep of UBC would see them leapfrog the ‘Birds in the standings, while a sweep the other way would give UBC a strong grip on one of the home-court spots and push Brandon back to the fringes of the playoff picture.
With Chow out, a lot of UBC’s offence ran through the middles last week against UBCO. Both of the T-Birds’ middle blockers have proven to be reliable attacking options, with Alex Russell in particular emerging this season as a consistent threat, leading the conference with a .461 attacking percentage. But both he and Chris Howe took it to another level against the Heat. Russell led all T-Birds with 25 kills on 44 attacks combined in the series, and Howe racked up 13 kills on 19 attacks. Until somebody slows them down, UBC’s big men should continue to be a big factor in the offence.
The Brandon offence is mostly built around Sam Tuivai, who led the conference in kills last season and ranks ninth right now with 3.45 per set. But like UBC, the Bobcats have a pair of talented blockers who are more than capable of contributing to the attack, setting up an interesting battle at the middle of the net.
Dan Boutwell and Ty Moorman are hitting for about three kills per set combined on highly-efficient averages, but one key difference is that they both generate a lot of points on the defensive end as well. UBC ranks last in the conference in blocking, but Boutwell and Moorman are among league leaders, each averaging more than a block per set, which has Brandon ranked second in blocking as a team.