This week, we’re going to be running a series of posts borrowing from John Hughes and featuring some possibly-overlooked teams that might make a little noise at the CIS championships if things go right, or might not even make it there if things go wrong. To qualify for this series, teams must be ranked lower than #4 in the latest CIS top ten. We’ll start with volleyball, and then move on to hockey and basketball.
Men’s volleyball: Brandon Bobcats
The Bobcats haven’t received a lot of national attention this year, and part of that’s thanks to competing in the stacked Canada West conference. Another part of that’s thanks to their historical record; they’ve generally delivered strong regular seasons, but haven’t dominated and have frequently come up short in the playoffs. They went 10-8 in 2007-08, but failed to win a set in two home playoff games against Thompson Rivers. They repeated the 10-8 mark in 2008-09 and went all the way to nationals, finishing third, but took a substantial step backwards last season despite a 12-8 regular-season mark, again losing two straight home games to Thompson Rivers (they won two total sets this time, though). That doesn’t exactly scream playoff threat, particularly in a conference that features perennial powerhouses like Alberta, Calgary and Trinity Western.
There’s a good chance this year could be different for the Bobcats, though. They finished seventh in the last CIS Top 10 (on Feb. 15), but they’ve already knocked off one higher-ranked team, fifth-ranked provincial rivals Manitoba, in a tight best-of-three series. That win was particularly impressive to me; the Bobcats lost the first match three sets to two on the road, but rebounded to win the second 3-2 (also at Manitoba) and then closed out the series with a 3-1 victory at home. That’s put them through to the Canada West semifinals, where they’ll take on Alberta Friday. Win or lose, though, they’ve already locked up a spot in the nationals in Langley; Trinity Western’s hosting, leaving three berths for the other Canada West semifinalists. They also have an impressive squad, led by Paul Sanderson (last year’s national player of the year, and the top player of 2010-11 in our rankings) and buttressed by Jonathan Sloane and Joseph Brooks. The Bobcats seem to be finding a good vein of form, and that could make them a tough team to ouster at this year’s championships.
Women’s volleyball: Alberta Pandas
The Pandas started the season ranked third overall, but fell all the way to seventh in Week Four after a tough loss. They then hung around seventh for most of the rest of the season, also finishing sixth and eighth at times before eventually moving up to fifth in the final week of polling (Feb. 15). Their 11-7 regular-season record certainly wasn’t too bad and gave them the third spot in the Canada West playoffs, but it wasn’t spectacular, and it was quite a ways back of dominant squads UBC and Trinity Western (both 15-3).
Still, don’t write off Alberta yet. They’ve been a pretty impressive team for years, going 14-6, 16-4 and 12-8 in the three seasons prior to this, winning the 2007 national championship and finishing fourth in both 2008 and 2010. This particular team has a good amount of big-game experience, and they’ve already demonstrated that in this season’s playoffs, knocking off dangerous Calgary 3-1, 3-1. They face a tough task against Trinity Western in the Canada West semifinals, but could still make it to nationals with a semifinal loss and a third-place victory over the loser of the UBC-Manitoba semifinal. They also led the conference with 2.33 service aces per set this season, and feature the conference’s two top servers (by average aces per set) in Krista Zubick and Jaki Ellis as well as the ninth-best server in Canada West (Tiffany Proudfoot). If they manage to get to the big dance at Laval next week, the Pandas might just be able to make it a memorable appearance.