Since missing the playoffs during the first season of head coach Doug Anton’s tenure, the NAIT men’s volleyball team has improved their play, including winning bronze in thrilling fashion last year. This season, the Ooks have the grandest stage in their attempts to achieve the next step of success, a conference championship in their home gym. While the automatic playoff berth allows the squad to better develop systems and rest key players, Anton stresses results during the year are still important.
“We still need to learn how to consistently perform every week in order to create a habit of winning. Ranking going into the championships is important, too. I’d prefer not to draw one of the top Southern teams in the first round.” Anton has good reason for wanting to place high. The Ooks faced three South Division opponents at last year’s championship. Despite coming in with the third best record in the league, NAIT narrowly won their quarter-final and bronze medal matches, while losing in straight sets to powerhouse Red Deer in the semis.
What will help the Ooks get to their destination is depth. Seven players return from last year’s squad and are joined by six recruits capable of starting. “It’s a great advantage,” says Anton. “It allows us to be less affected by injuries, keep a really competitive practice environment and gives us solutions from the bench if we have anyone having an off-night.” The makeup of this edition of the volley-Ooks is a solid mixture of youth and experience. Transfers Jordan Wenaas (Grant MacEwan), Cole Burkhart (U of A), Cale Whiston and Derek Jansen (Lakeland) represent the new veterans, while local club standouts Spencer Fisher and Isaiah Stime (the latter a graduate of NOOKs, the NAIT run club) bring energy and athleticism. Burkart should make a great one-two punch on the rightside with gifted leaper Teador Kostelnik, while Jansen will compete with Brayden Kennedy to replace former co-captain Sean Renaud at the setter position. The level of play these two ball chuckers display will have an enormous impact on the squad’s success.
“Our setters are both relatively untested at the top echelons of the ACAC,” said Anton. “So, that will be a key development how they come along this season.” On the left-side, the Ooks boast a trio of experienced swing-men in fourth years Trever Zemlak and Jordan Teliske and fifth year Justin Knight. In the middle, fifth years Whiston and Ethan Redman bring veteran smarts, while Wenaas and Oliver McSwain add size. Despite losing three captains last season in Renaud, Bryce Cardinal and Anton Borodyuk, Anton believes the current group has great leadership potential. “We have some good candidates, guys that have played that role on other teams. So, it just depends on how the team dynamic plays out,” he said.
After hosting exhibition matches against Canada’s Military Games squad and South Division opponents and competing in the third annual Sofa Land Men’s Volleyball Classic (which included a strong showing against the U of A Golden Bears, Anton’s team from his playing days) the Ooks have two more marquee matchups before league play begins. First, the Ooks host their semifinal opponents from last season, the Red Deer College Kings, on Saturday. Then, they take on the defending champions, North Division rival Augustana, Oct. 8 in Spruce Grove at 7 p.m. “These two are a good test for us and give us a much better idea of where we currently fit overall,” said Anton. The Ooks home opener is Oct. 18 against the King’s University College Eagles.