By Daniel Rocchi
Facing a season filled with potential distractions and a pre-determined ending, Ryerson’s women’s volleyball team is set on staying focused.
After making the second Ontario University Athletics (OUA) finals appearance in team history and coming within one win of a national tournament berth last season*, the Rams will host the 2017 U Sports (formerly Canadian Interuniversity Sport) national tournament in March. As the host school, Ryerson is guaranteed a berth in the tournament.
But after a loss in the OUA finals to the University of Toronto cost them both a league banner and a trip to nationals last season, the Rams aren’t taking anything for granted this year.
“If we just sit back and take the berth that’s there, we have a first-round match-up against the number one team in the country as the eighth seed,” said Dustin Reid, who enters his ninth season as the team’s head coach. “While that would be an amazing opportunity and one that we would attack with everything we have, it’s not the way we want to go to the event.
“We want to be a strong team in our conference. There are three OUA teams who are going to gain berths to this event and we’d like to have the highest seed of the three.”
This year’s Rams squad is more than capable of being a strong OUA team and title contender. In the past four seasons, Ryerson has a combined record of 54-21. The Rams have improved their final regular-season standing in each of the past three years, including last year’s finish as the second-place team in the OUA East division that culminated in a run to the OUA championship game.
“It’s a very experienced group,” said Reid. “If you look at our veteran players, they’ve never been part of a losing season here … so familiarity with the expectations and the belief that we can be successful and multiple years under our coaching staff, these are things that can only help.”
The squad that made it to the OUA final last year remains largely intact for the 2016-2017 campaign, with 12 members of the 16-player roster returning. Fifth-year outside hitter Veronica Livingston, the OUA leader in kills per set in each of the last two seasons, and third-year middle blocker Theanna Vernon, who finished in the top 10 in kills per set and lead the league with a .435 hitting percentage, will likely drive the Ryerson offense once again. Reid also expects fourth-year outside hitter Kristine Yan and third-year middle blocker Jena Bonello to play big minutes for the Rams, while fourth-year libero Julie Longman will be counted on to lead the defence.
The team experienced only moderate change-over between last year’s line-up and this one, but the players the Rams did lose will be anything but easy to replace, as outside hitter Emily Nicholishen and setter and team captain Emily Betteridge both played their last games as Rams last season. Though Nicholishen played only 31 sets last season due to injury, she still had 70 kills in limited action. She finishes her Ryerson career with 675 kills for 808.5 points in 274 sets over five seasons. Betteridge finished last season ranked second in the OUA in both assists (568) and assists per set (9.79) en route to being named an OUA second-team all-star, and finishes her time as a Ram with 1,622 assists in 166 regular-season sets.
With Betteridge gone, the Rams will look for a new starting setter to emerge from a trio of challengers. Ryerson’s setters include fourth-year Haroula Giovanopoulos, second-year Kate McIlmoyle and first-year Mady Timpany, who will all challenge for the bulk of the playing time. McIlmoyle earned a spot on the OUA all-rookie team playing behind Betteridge last season, recording 123 assists in 28 sets played, while Timpany won the Ontario Volleyball Association U-18 championships with Pakmen Volleyball Club in April. Reid says he hasn’t settled on a starter yet.
Timpany’s fellow rookies, outside hitter Cailin Wark and middle blocker Lauren Veltman were also members of that winning Pakmen team. Meanwhile, Becky Zeeman, who joined the Rams as an assistant coach last year, will be a player-coach for Ryerson this season, using her last year of OUA eligibility after an earlier four-season tenure with Queen’s. With these new additions, Reid believes this team will have more offensive flexibility than past Ryerson squads.
“Ultimately, we want to have a more balanced team,” he said. “We want more than one option in most of those [big] moments.”
No matter who’s scoring the points for the Rams, and regardless of their guaranteed spot at nationals, Ryerson is still looking for its first OUA title, and Reid says this team won’t be taking anything for granted.
“This is a group of players that wants to play in a national championship, whether we host it or not, and wants to do the work necessary to be a national championship-contending team.”
The women’s volleyball team opens its season on the road on Friday, Oct. 28 at 6 pm against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, the same team that spoiled Ryerson’s season last year. The Rams play their first home game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on Friday, Nov. 11 at 6 pm against the Nipissing Lakers.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story claimed that the team’s CIS national tournament appearance would have been their first. The team appeared in the 2002 tournament. The Eyeopener regrets this error.