The Thunderbirds are on a three game winning streak in a season that has been eventful, to say the least. Having been swept on their opening weekend for the first time since 2010, the ‘Birds responded with a sweep of their own against UBC-Okanagan in a home-opening series at War Memorial Gym. A quick bus trip to Kamloops saw UBC fall in five sets to Thompson Rivers University – the first loss to the Wolfpack in program history.
Although the Thunderbirds have not been accustom to this variance of play in recent years, they now found themselves embarking on what may be considered a normal season for a team without as illustrious a history as UBC. Fourth-year left-side Alissa Coulter assures that the apparent inconsistencies have only improved the Thunderbirds skillset.
“We are much stronger for having to battle through our games,” said Coulter, UBC’s leading attacker with 73 kills on the season. “I think this shows in our play and now our [most recent] results.”
Not that the Thunderbirds are making any excuses, but injuries and other misfortune have plagued the team thus far. Fifth-year left-side and reigning CIS Player of the Year Lisa Barclay recovered from illness enough to see her first action against UBC-Okanagan this past weekend, only to sprain her ankle in Saturday night’s game. Barclay will not travel to Manitoba this weekend. Other injuries have forced players into positions and roles that they may not have seen under ideal circumstances. Third-year Juliana Kaufmanis has swayed from her usual left-side position to the middle, right-side, and now back to the left-side.
“I think we’re going to have to continue to deal with those changes,” said Kaufmanis. “Considering all the adaptations we’ve had to make, [the season] has gone pretty well.” Kaufmanis leads the conference in aces with 0.52 per set.
Danielle Brisebois began the season tremendously in a newfound starting role on the left-side before a neck injury sidelined her for three games. Brisebois returned from injury in last weekend’s series, and currently leads the Thunderbirds with 2.70 kills per set.
UBC has not matched up against Manitoba since the 2014 CIS National Final, but Kaufmanis does not expect any heightened animosity between the two teams.
“Both teams are very different from what they were last year,” said Kaufmanis, a native of Steveston, BC. “They’ve had a lot of roster changes too.”
Perhaps the most notable of these roster changes for Manitoba is the departure of Taylor Pischke, a Canada West Second Team All-Star last season. Following a successful summer playing beach volleyball, where her and her partner Melissa Humana-Paredes climbed to 30th in the FIVB world rankings, Pischke opted to forego the 2014-2015 indoor season with the Bisons in an attempt to earn admission to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. Pischke and Paredes are the third highest ranked Canadian pairing – and the youngest – at the ages of 21 and 22 years, respectively.
Manitoba has, however, retained last year’s CIS Championship MVP in Rachel Cockrell on the right-side, while all-star setter Brittany Habing is yet again at the helm of the Bison offence. Cockrell currently leads the conference in kills and kills per set.
UBC now sits in the sixth spot of the CIS top 10 rankings, after falling out of the top 10 for the second time this season in last week’s poll. Prior to this season, UBC had not been placed lower than second since 2010 on the weekly poll. Although the confidence has seemed to vary for the Thunderbirds, Kaufmanis believes that the consistency will come.
“When our team is playing well and it’s working – that brings confidence,” she said. “We’re just looking forward to playing some good volleyball this weekend.”
The weekend series will begin at Manitoba’s Investors Group Athletic Centre on Friday at 4:00 pm PT, and culminate upon the completion of Saturday’s 3:00 pm match. Both games can be viewed live via canadawest.tv.