A dramatic turnaround season for the Capilano University men's volleyball team ended on the weekend with a fifth-place showing at the CCAA national championships held at Niagara College in Welland, Ont.
The Blues won back-to-back national silver medals in 2004 and 2005 but have struggled since, not coming close to success at the provincial or national level. A forever spinning coaching carousel didn't help matters as the Blues started four consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2012 with a different head coach than the one who finished the previous season.
This year saw another rookie head coach but this time the results were different - Nathan Bennett took over last spring after a knee injury ended his professional playing career and guided the Blues to a fourth place finish in PacWest league play. The Blues then stunned the PacWest world last month by winning the provincial title and grabbing a spot in the national championships.
Their run at the ultimate prize, however, ended early in Ontario with an opening round loss to the host Niagara College Knights last Thursday. The match started well for the second-seeded Blues as they blasted to a big win in the first set but the seventh-seeded Knights charged back and won in five grueling sets (16-25, 2518, 23-25, 25-23, 15-8) in front of a raucous home crowd. One day after landing back in Vancouver coach Bennett said his team's fast start may have actually been its downfall.
"We started OK but I think that was kind of a curse as well because we thought that it was going to be an easy match and took the foot off of the gas," he said. "I think it shows the importance of the first match, especially when you play a team you don't see very often. . . . You need to come into that match and leave nothing in the tank."
With the loss the Blues were now battling for bronze. Their second match was another fierce five-setter but this time it was a win for Capilano as they topped the CÉGEP de l'Outaouais Griffons from Quebec. The tournament ended for the Blues with a 3-1 loss to a talented team from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology on Saturday.
Fourth year power hitter Dan Caverly was named to the tournament's first all-star team, ending an exceptional run that saw him earn a spot on the PacWest first all-star team as well as MVP honours at the provincial championships.
"He had a good weekend," said Bennett. "He was solid in reception, he put the ball away when he had the chance and if he couldn't put it away he put them in trouble. Very consistent serving and the defence was impeccable."
The rest of the Blues actually couldn't match the level set by Caverly throughout the national tournament, said Bennett.
"Dan was our biggest guy. I think a lot of the guys had that 'deer in the headlights' look, maybe didn't realize the importance that they actually could be national champions if they did it right. Maybe they were just there for the experience. But to be honest, how many times do you get that opportunity? Now we've got to fight a whole season again just to be there and then once you're there you've got to realize you can't leave anything in the tank. You've worked all year to be there and now you've got the chance to win it."
Despite the disappointment of missing the medals at nationals, Bennett was still blown away by the performance of his team this year.
"It was a great season," he said. "Our team was a team of undersized guys maybe a bit less skilled than most teams, but the thing with our group was we battled as a team. I think we came together and we fought through adversity, injuries, being the smallest team out there all the time. But we battled the hardest and we willed a good season. I think that was a great thing to see, our team coming together like that."
The Blues did field a team that gave up inches to almost every opponent, their tallest player clocking in at just six-foot-four. His underdog team taught him a lesson in his first season ever as a coach, said Bennett.
"I learned that at this level sometimes it's not the biggest dog in the fight but it's the biggest fight in the dog," he said. "If you go out there and battle, anything can happen."
Winning a provincial title and earning a berth in nationals is a great way to give a program a boost, but there's one even more important thing happening with the Blues - Bennett said he's raring to go for next season, putting an end to the game of head coach musical chairs the program has been playing. He's intent on bringing the men's volleyball team up to speed with other Capilano sports programs that have experienced success throughout the years.
"The culture here at Capilano is that (with) winning provincials, you've just qualified to go to nationals, you haven't really done anything yet - the national championship is what everybody is after," he said, insisting that this first-year success after years of struggles hasn't set the bar too high for his teams in the future.
"I don't think it's high, I think that's the bar always. It's not about setting the bar, it's more about that's the expectation. The expectation whenever athletes play or do something in sport, your expectation is to win. Your expectation is to do everything you can to go out there and battle and be victorious, and that's what we want to do. It's not about just going out there and having fun and being with your buddies or whatever - the program is about going to nationals and winning national championships."