Kamloops, BC—Nothing like a stiff test right off the bat. That is what the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack women’s volleyball team is facing as the 2016-17 Canada West season begins this weekend.
The WolfPack are entertaining the University of Alberta Pandas in back to back games on the Warner Rentals court at the Tournament Capital Centre. Game one is Friday (Oct 28) night at 6 pm with the second set for Saturday afternoon (Oct 29) at 5 pm.
Alberta goes into the season as the number two ranked team in U Sports. They were second in the Canada West in 2015-16 (20-4). Thompson Rivers finished .500 (12-12), making the playoffs for only their second time in their history.
“We are excited to get started,” said WolfPack head coach Chad Grimm. “We started a little bit earlier this year (exhibition trip to Oregon in late August). I think everyone is looking forward to seeing some different faces on the other side of the net.”
The ‘Pack lost four starters from last year’s squad. “That is a big hole to fill. I like the quality of athlete that we have. We just have to find that level of stability and comfort level working together. We have more moving parts that can come in.”
Thompson Rivers is led by Iullia Pakhomenko (outside hitter, Donetsk, Ukraine). She is the defending Canada West and CIS player of the year and the Canada West overall female athlete of the year.
“It is going to be way more competitive in Canada West,” she says. “We are putting our goals higher than last year. As good as I hope my season is, it won’t mean much if our team doesn’t do well. I feel that we are going to spread out our offense so hopefully that will help us. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t want to be player of the year again but I am not focusing on my individual performance.”
Grimm is expecting her to face intense pressure this year. “When teams are scouting us they will focus on Iullia. She scored a lot of points for us over the last couple of years. She is a focal point. We are going to learn to use that to our advantage and spread the ball out to other people and punish teams a bit more for focusing in on Iullia.”
The two teams played in the preseason. Alberta took TRU 3-0 at the West Coast Classic on October 15th (scores 25-18, 25-21, 25-17).
Two key holes to fill in the WolfPack starting seven are at setter and libero. They have been utilizing first year Hali Drezet (Prince George, BC) and third year Carly Gunter (Courtenay, BC) at libero. “Hali has been getting the lion’s share of the work. Having a first year touch the ball that many times is a lot to ask but so far she has been up to the task.”
At setter: it has been shared between Abby Spratt (Calgary, AB) and Savannah Guttman (Dauphin, MB). “Both have been fighting for that starters spot,” Grimm says. “That will be a competition all year. “
Grimm admits that those are crucial positions that are filled with inexperienced players but says they have done a good job and it will be ‘trial by fire’ as to how successful the WolfPack will be.
One of the new faces on the WolfPack belongs to Prince George native Sarah Loedel. Loedel practiced with the squad last year and has previous collegiate experience with Grande Prairie Regional College. She adds experience and depth at the middle position. “We have such a diverse age group with six players just out of high school. I’m the second oldest at 24 (Pakhomenko is 25 years old). We all have been in that ‘newcomer’ position so we can relate to what they are going through. The first years are really embracing their role.”
The coach admits the goal this year is to make the post season and go further. “Obviously every program wants to get better every year. I think we have a good level of talent on our team and there is no reason why we can’t compete at that level again. That being said, we know the Canada West is a tough league and every match is important. We need to be able to have a level of stability and consistency and put ourselves in a spot where we want to be.”
SIDE OUTS: The opening weekend is sponsored by “McDonalds Restaurants of Kamloops and Merritt”. On Friday night, part of the proceeds from the gate will go to the TRUly United way effort.
Pakhomenko on her future: “I am thinking of either staying in Kamloops and start using my Masters of Business degree. But if my body feels at the end of the year, I wouldn’t mind pursing a professional career overseas.”
Loedel talks about her role on the team: “Getting back to playing middle (she took three years off due to illness) and re-establishing the flow of play has taken some time. Having Nathan (Bennett, TRU assistant coach, a former USport middle himself) giving me so much positive feedback it’s been easy to correct things. My role is to help the other middles guide their way through: not only on the court but in school as well. I am emphasizing to the rest of the team to take care of themselves. It is a long season. The better you take care of your body the better you will be in the long term.”