Heat primed for CIS debut
Alex Basso and her UBC Okanagan teammates are about to make history.
On Friday night, the Heat women's volleyball squad will own the distinction of being the first team ever to play a Canada West regular season match in Kelowna when they host the University of Winnipeg.
"We've been talking about this move to the CIS for such a long time, it still feels a little surreal," said Basso, who is entering her fourth season with the Heat. "It's pretty exciting to know we're finally going to play, and it's pretty exciting to be making history.
"It's been a little nerve-wracking as well, but it's time to show we belong," she added. "We're going to go out and have some fun."
The Heat women's first ever CIS match will take to the floor at the UBCO gym at 6 p.m. Friday against the Wesmen, followed by the men's game at 8 p.m.
UBC Okanagan's athletic department was granted membership into the Canada West University Athletics Association in May 2010. But in truth, all four teams—men's and women's volleyball, and men's and women's basketball—have been preparing for their debuts in the CIS for the last several years.
In their life prior to Canada West, the Heat women's volleyball team won three consecutive BCCAA titles, as well as back-to-back national championships in 2009 and 2010.
This fall, in their final tune-up for the big time, the Heat more than held their own against CIS competition in exhibition play, posting a 5-5 record; all five losses came against top 10 teams, while victories came over the 10th, 12th, 13th and 15th ranked teams in Canada.
"The team is feeling quite good about the way they matched up with those teams," said Manuel, in his 11th season as Heat coach. "We're fairly confident in the fact that we belong there."
Between off-season training, and a challenging preseason schedule, Manuel said the Heat program has left no stone unturned when it came to preparing for the step up to a new level of competition.
And while no one is really talking championship in their inaugural season, Manuel expects his Heat to give their more seasoned CIS opponents a run for their money on most nights.
"Our team is about as good as can be expected, considering it's a first-year team," he said. "We really have a team full of CIS rookies, but plenty of players who can play at that level. We're no different than any young, talented team. We'll have some great moments, and we'll have some young moments. But I'm confident in saying we will be competitive, maybe the best first-year team to have joined the league. We'll hit the ground running."
The Heat will be led into battle by the likes of power hitters Alex Basso, Jill Festival, and Myrte Schon, fourth-year middle Kaylan Goldsborough, and setter Chandler Proch, who replaces BCCAA MVP Caitlyn Nyhus.
As one of B.C.'s most highly-touted players out of high school, Nate Speijer could have began his CIS career at any time over the last four years.
Instead, the Penticton product chose to stay close to home and ply his trade with the UBC Okanagan Heat.
Friday night at 8, Speijer's patience and long-term preparation for the big-time will finally be rewarded when the Heat battle the University of Winnipeg in Canada West action at the UBCO gym.
"We're all ecstatic about this," said Speijer, a former BCCAA rookie of the year and MVP. "We've been waiting for his ever since we first knew there would be good possibility this would happen. Now that it's finally here, it's almost a relief. At the same time, we know it's going to be very intense, it's going to be for real. We're excited to get it going."
The Heat's preamble for CIS competition included an intense exhibition schedule with 13 matches—12 against Canada West opponents—in a four-week span.
"The purpose of all those matches was to hit the level of play we're going to see, the grind of playing on back-to-back weekends against strong opponents," said Heat coach Greg Poitras, whose team went 4-9. "We played five or six top 10 teams, won some, lost some, and were close in a lot of them. It was a great taste of the level of competition we're going to face."
Speijer and fifth-year setter Preston Tucker will be looked to for leadership this season.
Riley McFarland, who has CIS experience, is back after a year off and will provide stabilty on the court. The team's overall depth wil be tested as the Heat will start the season without injured veteran Greg Niemantsverdriet.
"We're not a deep team, but we have a foundation of players who can play at this level," said Poitras. "We're going to have guys with a little less experience helping us fill the gaps, but that's how they'll gain experience and hopefully get better."
After the last several years as one of the powers of the collegiate volleyball, the Heat will now find out where they stack up against the best university teams in the country.
Nate Speijer said his teammates are going into battle with their eyes wide open.
"All the teams are much more perfected (than BCCAA), teams don't have weaknesses at this level, and it's more of a team game now where one superstar isn't enough to get you by," Speijer said. "There are subtle differences at this level between winning and losing, so that's why we need to stick together and always be mentally focused.
"We know we're not going to roll teams like we sometimes did in the BCCAA," Speijer. "We have to understand we pretty much have to play our best game each night to win. At the same time, we're not just thankful to get the chance. We're here to win."
Seven of 11 teams will make the Canada West playoffs, a goal that both Speijer and Poitras believe is reasonable for the Heat.
The Heat and Wesmen will square off again Saturday with matches at 6 and 8 p.m.
The following weekend, Nov. 4 and 5, the UBC Thunderbirds will visit UBC Okanagan for Canada West action.