At the start of the PacWest volleyball season the league sent out a neat little preview package that broke down each team in the league.
Included was a little summary of how each team had done since the 2007-08 season, a starting point that has some interesting meaning for the Capilano University men. That was the last season for coach James Sneddon, who successfully piloted the program for several years. For the next five years each season began with a different head coach. Not all that surprisingly, each season ended outside of the medals, often outside the playoffs. The one exception was last year, the first season for yet another new head coach, Nathan Bennett. Acting as a head coach for the first time ever, the former British national team player (he grew up in Alberta with dual citizenship) led the Blues to a surprise provincial championship and a fifth-place showing at nationals.
That great result was good news for the program. The even better news for the Blues: Bennett is back. So, too, are most of the key players from last year's run. In just over a year, the program has gone from a wandering nomad to a high-powered machine, and their second-year coach has his sights set even higher now that the team has tasted success.
"Medal at nationals," Bennett quickly answered when asked how the team can top their impressive showing in his debut year. "That's always what we're looking for here. This program is a program that wants to compete for a national title every year, it doesn't matter what we have on the floor. I think if people aren't willing to compete for that title and do the work that needs to be done to get there, then this isn't the place for them."
The Blues displayed that championship skill and desire last weekend when they hosted a pair of matches against Vancouver Island University, they team they beat in last year's PacWest championship game. This time around it was no contest as the Blues racked up 3-0 wins on consecutive nights.
Fifth year player Dan Caverly led the way Friday night, blasting big kills from his left side position as well as exciting bombs from the back row - a play the Mariners seemed powerless to stop.
Caverly was named a first-team PacWest all-star last season while also winning PacWest playoff MVP honours and a spot on the first all-star team at the national championships. Caverly provides a very unique mix of superb defence and explosive offence - he put that on display as a member of the winning beach volleyball team at the Canada Games over the summer - that is hard to find at this level.
"He's just Dan Caverly," Bennett explained with a laugh. "He's a guy who passes well, he serves well, he attacks the ball well, he comes with speed. He's still got some parts of his game that need work and hopefully we'll have those parts ironed out, but he's a good leader for us by example, the way he plays."
With that assessment Bennett displayed another trait that seems to be a part of his coaching style. A former elite player himself, he's quick to praise but always offers up the flip side of what the team or player needs to work on.
Here's Bennett on middle blocker Spencer Kyte, a fourth year player who seemed dominant both in hitting and on the block against VIU Friday night: "He had a good game today, he followed the game plan properly. He was there with some speed today, which is something we harp on him for."
And how about fourth year middle blocker Ben Ta, who also made a number of big plays as the Blues routed the Mariners? "He's probably the fastest middle in the league on offence. He still needs some work on the blocking side of things but he did a good job today."
And rookie Taylor Howe, a power hitter inserted straight into the starting lineup in his first season out of Calgary's Dr. E.P. Scarlett secondary? "I think he hits the hardest ball in the league at this point as a rookie. He's got some technical issues we've got to deal with still but I'm not too worried about putting him out there."
The one starter who earned praise with no caveats was setter and team captain Ben Ricketts, another fifth year player who had the team's offence humming.
"He's just very cerebral," said Bennett. "He understands the game so well, he understands the opposition, he knows who's hot, who's not, what kind of set to run against what defender. And he's a really good leader."
It's not that Bennett doesn't think his team players are talented, it's just that he knows they don't have a huge margin for error because they send out one of the shortest lineups in the league. A quick glance at the lineup card for last weekend's matchups showed VIU with 10 players listed at sixfoot-three or more while Capilano had only five such players. The Blues need to rely on execution, not brute force, said Bennett.
"We need to play a fast game. We need to be able to beat the other team to the ball before they have a chance to defend it.. .. If we take care of the things that we're supposed to take care of then the results that we're looking for come. If we decide to ad-lib a little bit or do something that we're not supposed to do then it makes things a little tougher on our side."
They may be short in stature but they certainly aren't short on experience. Five of the team's seven starters on Friday were third-year players or older.
"It helps a lot," said Bennett. "It helps with the speed of the game - they're used to the speed, they're used to the velocity of the ball, they're used to the set speed to the pins - it's good for us. And the fact that they've played together for a long time is helpful too."
Put it all together and the Blues are aiming to be back in the PacWest final. They've got some extra incentive to get there this year as Capilano was awarded hosting duties for the men's and women's volleyball championships. The Blues are pumped to defend their title on their home floor but Bennett is quick to point out that they aren't guaranteed a berth in the playoffs just because they're hosting.
The Blues, however, seem well poised to get there the old-fashioned way. Through three weeks of play they stood in first place with a 4-2 record. They'll be back in action on their home floor Nov. 15 and 16 for a pair of contests against the University of the Fraser Valley. And though Bennett is always willing to offer constructive criticism of his team and players, he's unequivocal in his belief that the Blues are a team that North Shore volleyball fans will enjoy watching this season, all the way up to that championship final.
"I think we have a good product here, I think we play an exciting style of volleyball," he said. "We want to make sure we get some more people here to see the quality of players we have here at this time."
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