Conferences, small edges and Canada West

Earlier this week, I wrote a long piece about how the increased availability of athletic entrance scholarships and the increased focus on national recruiting has started to help schools outside of Canada West start to catch up in sports traditionally dominated by western teams. Canada West does still have some edges in scholarships, infrastructure and coaches, but I think the gap is beginning to close a bit.

However, you wouldn't know it from this weekend's CIS volleyball national championships. As I wrote in a feature for the Queen's Journal back in 2008, men's volleyball has been solidly dominated by Canada West since its inception, with the conference claiming the last 15 straight national titles and 37 of the 43 championships that have been held. That pattern hasn't shown any signs of changing so far; there are four Canada West teams here, making up half the field; No. 2 Alberta, No. 4 Trinity Western, No. 6 Calgary and No. 7 Thompson Rivers. Three of the four won their opening games; the only one to lose was Thompson Rivers, who played against Alberta, and they bounced back with a three-set thumping of Dalhousie this afternoon.

The Queen's - Trinity Western game was supposed to be close; that's what you'd expect from a four-versus-five game. It wasn't, though; the Gaels had their moments, but the Spartans won in straight sets. When I spoke to Queen's players and coaches after the game for my recap piece for the Journal, I got some very interesting comments. Consider this one from libero Alex Oneid, who said Trinity Western's speed was one of the main things that threw the Gaels off.

"Their rate of play was pretty similar to ours," Oneid said. "This year, even some of the better teams in the OUA had a slower pace. We came here and we basically saw us, with a little more game experience."

Head coach Brenda Willis offered some thoughts along the same theme.

“I’m not sure things went wrong so much as they went right for Trinity Western," she said. "The tempo of thie offence is something we don’t face in Ontario. We also don’t face that level of serving very much, and I don’t think we passed well enough to run the offence we’re capable of running. They face other teams at that tempo, at that level of serving all the time and we don’t."

Willis said the difference between the teams wasn't so much physical talent as experience against good competition.

"Physically, we matched up very well," she said. "I don’t think we’re too small or too slow. We need to be a little more skilled perhaps and a little more in sync."

Willis said the nationals are a learning experience for the Gaels, with a chance to play some high-calibre teams. She said they have the physical talent to compete with western teams, but they need to work on the small elements of the game against elite competition if they're going to become more precise.

"The biggest thing for us is to go through this tournament learning and getting better so we can go home and realize there’s no big gap, it’s just about getting better in all the areas; faster offence, a little more aggressive defence," she said. "It’s just the little things."

I talked about the importance of regular-season competition a bit in my piece on Dalhousie last night, but I thinks it deserves some more coverage. Queen's doesn't have Dalhousie's problem of not facing high-level teams all year during the regular season, as there are some very good teams in Ontario, including McMaster, Western and Guelph. However, for every match against those teams, they have one against weaker teams like RMC (0-20 this year) or York (4-16). It's tough to learn much from those games, and it's easy to pick up bad habits in them.

Canada West has its own stragglers, like Regina (0-18 this year) and UBC (4-14), but those programs have been good at times, and they're far more the exception than the rule. It's pretty close at the top of Canada West; Thompson Rivers finished sixth during the regular season with a 10-8 mark, but they've done very well at the nationals so far. By contrast, Ontario features less elite teams and many more middling teams. Moreover, the other top-level Ontario teams all have the same problem of playing down to their competition, not being refined by it, so they're not as elite as they might be if they played in a tougher league. This suggests that in CIS sports, it might not be enough just to build your own program into a powerhouse if your league remains at a lower level.

In some ways, this difference might particularly show up in volleyball, where there are so many little changes in serving, passing and attacking styles that can make a big difference. If you're not exposed to the different styles of top teams throughout the season, it's much more difficult to quickly figure out a way to counter them at nationals. There are exhibition tournaments and such that can help with this, and the good programs do make an effort to expose their players to as much competition as possible, but that doesn't make up for a regular season of night-in and night-out battles.

There will be an interesting test of this idea in the 6 p.m. (Pacific) game tonight, with top-ranked Laval taking on No. 4 Trinity Western. Laval is an excellent team and a very physically skilled one. They've also had success at the national level; they finished second in last year's championships, breaking Canada West's streak of seven straight medal sweeps. However, they play in a much weaker league than the Spartans, who were tested night in and night out. Laval will be favoured, and there's a good chance they'll win, but if Trinity does pull off the upset, I'd venture that the strength of their schedule might be part of the reason why.

[Cross-posted to Sporting Madness]
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