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Photos courtesy David Moll

Dinos women’s volleyball team earn first conference title since 2005

By Christie Melhorn, March 14 2018 — 

On March 9, the Dinos women’s volleyball team rocked the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and secured the Canada West (CW) championship title. Both teams played aggressively, with the Thunderbirds only a few points behind for most of the game. In the last set, the Dinos momentum gained even greater speed and rose 25­–10 above the Thunderbirds. 

The Jack Simpson Gym was electric with emotion, especially since the women’s volleyball team hasn’t claimed a CW banner since 2005. The win came only a few days after outside hitter and third-year engineering student Kate Pexman wasnamed CW’s women’s volleyball player of the year, giving the Dinos many reasons to celebrate.

Over the last decade, the team’s league standing has fluctuated. The Dinos 2013–14 roster was mostly comprised of first- and seconds-years who, despite finishing fifth out of seventeen teams on the season, showed great promise. Head coach Natalie Gurnsey says that team has evolved considerably over the years and that their promise has been fulfilled. 

“[Fourth-year and outside hitter] Laura McManes has been with us from the very beginning. We were laughing the other night saying how we went from being the very last team in the CW to being the best. It’s pretty powerful when you look at where we came from and where we’ve gotten,” Gurnsey said. “You can’t win a CW championship without being able to handle adversity and pressure. I’m so proud.”

The lack of experienced players on previous rosters turned out to be advantageous for the Dinos. It gave them time to develop close bonds and grow together. Pexman and third-year kinesiology major and middle Beth Vinnell says this largely contributed to their success.

“Our [team cohesion] carried over from last year. We didn’t really have anyone graduate,” Pexman said. “Our team culture has continued to build around a core group of people. We’re super comfortable with each other.”

The trust we’ve built over the years helps us have conversations that keep each other accountable,” Vinnell added. “If someone isn’t giving our team what we need in that moment, we know how to be honest and ask for more.”

These conversations have paid off, as Gurnsey commends how her players handled fresh challenges in the CW final.

SPORTS_WVball_DavidMoll-01“Seeing different people who haven’t contributed throughout the year was really special. Kenzie Vandeering is a rookie and was our back-up libero for the entire season,” Gurnsey said. “We had an injury [put out] one of our left-side positions so we threw her in. She played so well. She’s a really good passer and has been a shining star.”

Vinnell says that the team’s confidence spearheaded their win.

“The last couple weeks of playoffs have been so much fun. I’ve been able to go into these games trusting my abilities and trusting my teammates,” Vinnell said. “I felt really free in my play and enjoyed myself. That’s why we play sports — for that thrill.”

Gurnsey says that strong presence of fifth-years on the team sharpened their competitive edge.

“There’s a difference in how badly you want to accomplish goals,” she said. “We call it fifth-year factor. They work so hard to finish off at the highest level that they can.”

Before the fifth-years move on, the team will enjoy one last weekend of competition together in Quebec at the U Sports championships. Their solidarity and leadership skills will be particularly challenged, as Gurnsey is expecting the birth of her first child this week and can’t travel. 

“It’s hard to let go and stay behind. Either way, this is a positive thing happening in my life,” Gurnsey said. “I don’t want to hold my athletes’ hands. I want to empower them to feel confident in themselves. I trust them to do it.”

Pexman attests to Gurnsey’s statement, saying their coach’s guidance has solidified the team’s confidence. The Dinos will miss Gurnsey at the championships but are excited for this significant chapter of her life to unfold.

“It’s amazing that everything’s happening for Natalie at the same time. She’s about to have this life-changing experience by becoming a mom,” Pexman said. “[Gurnsey] is so understanding and willing to accommodate. She lets us excel in all aspects of our lives. She’s a very inspirational person.”

The Dinos take on the University of Laval Rouge et Or on March 16 at 4 p.m. MST. The  game will be live streamed by Canada West TV. Individual games cost $5 to watch.

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