By Daniel Rocchi
Hosting school or not, the Ryerson women’s volleyball team opens the U Sports national tournament as the undisputed underdogs.
Despite a 15-4 regular season record—good for second place in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) East division and identical to the record of the OUA silver medalist Western Mustangs—the Rams fell to McMaster in the OUA semis before dropping the bronze medal game against the University of Toronto.
It was a difficult result for a team that took provincial silver at last year’s Final Four, and one that would have cost them a trip to nationals if the host team did not automatically qualify for the tournament.
The Rams are the eighth-seeded team in the eight-team playoff, meaning that their quest for the school’s first national gold medal will have to begin with the upset of the tournament.
Ryerson’s first match comes against the top-seeded University of Alberta Pandas, the Canada West conference champions and the national tournament favourites. The Pandas last won the gold medal back in 2007, and also had a six-year dynasty from 1995-2000.
“To play a historic program like Alberta—a very experienced team, a well-skilled and strong tactical team—is an honour, and we’re going to play the game to win it,” said head coach Dustin Reid. “We’re not going to play to try and put in a good showing or stay close. We’re going to try and play our best volleyball and try to make them uncomfortable and see what we can do there.”
If the Rams hope to win their quarter-final match against the tournament favourites, they’ll need big contributions from their top players. The play of middle blocker Theanna Vernon—who led the OUA in hitting percentage and ranked third in blocks per set—and Veronica Livingston—one of the best players in program history who is playing her last tournament as a fifth-year Ram—will likely determine whether or not the Rams advance to the championship semi-finals on Saturday night.
The Rams expected to enter the tournament with a roster bolstered by outside hitter Becky Zeeman, a former Queen’s Gael who joined the Rams as a player and coach this season after returning for her last year of university eligibility. But a broken left leg, suffered in a match in early February, ended Zeeman’s playing season. She has remained on the sideline as a coach throughout the year, but won’t be able to help her team on the court at this tournament.
“Whenever someone has a season-ending injury, it’s a difficult time, it’s a sad time,” said Reid. “A lot of the amazing impacts that Becky made on the team and the individual players on the team weren’t always seen when she was there, and now that she’s not able to join us on the court, people are mindful and people have learned some valuable things and they’re applying [them].
“There’s still a piece of her if you watch us play.”
Lauren Veltman has been one Ram who has stepped up in Zeeman’s absence. The first-year middle blocker has spent time this season playing as an outside hitter to help balance the Rams’ line-up. Veltman was fourth on the team in kills per set this season, trailing Livingston, Vernon and first-year outside hitter Cailin Wark, another rookie who has made a significant impact in her first season with the team.
The Rams haven’t been given much thought as a legitimate championship contender with powerhouses like Alberta, UBC, Trinity Western and Dalhousie all in the mix. Reid knows the team faces a tall task this weekend, but believes his players’ tenacity will set them apart and fuel a strong performance in front their home fans.
“I hope what you’re going to see is an aggressive team, a spirited team that’s taking risks—in serving, attacking, blocking and defence—and having the confidence to pull it off,” said Reid. “When we’ve got control of the ball, you can expect us to be aggressive and exciting, and I’m sure hoping passionate.”
Ryerson opens the tournament against Alberta on Friday night at 6 p.m. at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.