Making the Canada West playoffs in their inaugural season was no small feat for the UBC Okanagan men's volleyball squad.
The Heat's next formidable challenge is to try and take down the No. 2-ranked team in the country on their own court.
Beginning Thursday night, UBCO will be in Winnipeg to battle the Manitoba Bisons in the best-of-three Canada West conference quarterfinal.
The second best-of-five match will go Friday, with a third, if needed, set for Saturday night.
At stake is a trip to Trinity Western next weekend for the Canada West championship and, more importantly, a berth at the CIS finals March 2 to 4 at Queen's University.
The Heat (8-12) and Bisons (18-2) met twice in November with Manitoba sweeping to victory in both matches.
And while his Heat are the clear underdogs, head coach Greg Poitras said the UBCO men head into Winnipeg with a quiet confidence.
"We left that weekend thinking that if we could just play a little higher level of volleyball, we'd be right there with them," Poitras said. "We lost 3-0 and 3-0, but we had so many chances, it was just five or 10-minute spans in each set that we needed to be better.
"We're hungry to go back, we're a better team than we were, but so are they," Poitras added, "they've gotten better, too. We're up for a quite a challenge but we're a more confident team than the first time we played them."
Overcoming obstacles isn't a new concept to the Heat who, during one stretch this season, lost 11 straight matches and looked to be down and out of playoff contention.
But with eight wins in their last nine matches—including two must-win sweeps over Thompson Rivers on the final weekend—the Heat didn't at all resemble an inexperienced, first-year program.
"We looked at our schedule, the rankings and the standings and we knew we could win and maybe get a playoff spot," Poitras said. "We also knew we could end up in a bit of a drought, which we did, but we couldn't let it faze us. We managed our ups and downs pretty well, battled through some injuries, and the guys won the matches they had to.
They've battled all season, so it's quite an accomplishment to have made the playoffs. Now we want to take another step."
Setter Preston Tucker is one of three fifth-year players who will graduate from the Heat program at season's end.
Tucker expects his fellow grads and the rest of his UBCO teammates to leave it all on the court this weekend.
"All season we were underdogs, we weren't expected to make the playoffs, so really we have nothing to lose…and that can be scary for other teams," said Tucker, who graduates with Mark Broome and Spencer Brown.
"We're pretty excited to play Manitoba, we know we match up pretty well. They have a solid lineup, a few key guys. but if we can take a couple of them off their games, it gives us a real chance."
All Heat vs Manitoba matches will be streamed live on CanadaWest.tv.
• Heat women volleyball
Steve Manuel couldn't have asked for a better effort from his team to finish off UBC Okanagan's first ever season in Canada West women's volleyball.
The Heat left it all on the floor Saturday night in Kelowna en route to a hard-fought five set win (25-22, 23-25, 12-25, 25-23, 15-12) over Thompson Rivers University.
“That was an incredibly gutsy performance by our team,” said Heat head coach Steve Manuel. “That’s the kind of ball that we’ve played for so many years and that’s why we’ve been so successful, we played that hard the whole time.”
Heat outside hitter Alex Basso was dominant, putting down an game high total of 22 kills for the second night in a row, while also grabbing a team high 19 digs. Outside hitter Jill Festival put down five kills and added 13 digs.
“This season was great, we didn’t capitalize on some games that we all know we should have won, but we had a great time and to end the season like that, with the crowd and everything, it was awesome,” said Heat middle Kaylan Gouldsborough. “I’m really sad that I am finishing school and have to leave but I had a great time here.”
Gouldsborough played her last game with the Heat , and will be graduating this year with her degree in Human Kinetics. She was back in her familiar starting middle position Saturday, and as as a starter played a key part on two national collegiate championship squads with the Heat.
"Kaylan Gouldsborough came back into the match really strong and made a huge, huge difference for us just with her presence and what she did with her play," said Manuel. "She couldn't have finished her career on a higher note."
The Heat finished its first year in the CIS at 6-14 and shy of the playoffs, but Manuel has no doubt his program belongs with the nation's best.
"I think we had our mojo rocked a little bit this year just with playing bigger, stronger, older, more experienced teams and it’s really good to end on that note knowing that it’s not gone, it just went away for a while," said Manuel. "This team has what it takes to compete at the highest level in the country. We have beaten four teams that are going to playoffs in our first year and I think that’s a huge accomplishment. I’m extremely proud of how the team played all year and I couldn’t be happier about how they stepped up tonight and played just incredibly gutsy ball.”
• Heat Basketball
The UBC Okanagan men's basketball squad closed out its first ever season of CIS competition with a bang, taking down Thompson Rivers University 93-71 Sunday night in Kelowna.
The Heat shot a season high 54.3 per cent from the field to finish the 2011-12 Canada West campaign with a 3-15 record.
Fifth-year post Simon Pelland, playing in his final game for the Heat, was second on the team in scoring with 16 points and was tops in rebounding with eight.
"I couldn't be happier," Pelland said of his last game with the Heat. "At the end of the first half I started to get a pretty big smile on my face at the way everyone was playing. Definitely every single player on this team contributed to that win."
"I think it was one of the best team games we've played," added fellow post Steve Morrison, who was also playing in his final career game.
"Everyone was playing together, nobody selfish, it was something you enjoy being a part of. It was a great way to go out."
Junior guard Yassine Ghomari led UBC Okanagan in scoring with 25, while freshman Bret Macdonald and sophomore Mack Roth each chipped in 14.
The Heat were especially philanthropic on seniors night, as every three-pointer made resulted in a donation of $50 to KidSport B.C. The Heat scored a season best 93 points, including a season high nine threes on the night to raise $450 for the charity.
The UBC Okanagan women closed out their inaugural Canada West season Sunday afternoon in Kelowna with a 69-59 loss at the hands of the Thompson Rivers Wolfpack.
For the home team, Heat fourth-year post Roslyn Huber scored 21 points and grabbed five rebounds. First year guard Emily Kanester dropped 18 points in the absence of UBC Okanagan's starting guards Madison Kanedab and Ashley Briker.
Krystal Schouten and Laura Campbell grabbed five boards each to tie for the team lead with Huber.
Post Audrey Siebert-Timmer's career as a Heat athlete ended with Sunday's game, as she will be transferring to UBC Vancouver to begin her Master's degree in Engineering.
Siebert-Timmer reflected on the last five years spent with varsity athletes past and present.
"I had a great time with the team(s)," she said. "I made some really good friends that I've stayed connected even though they're off the team now. It's been a great experience."
Heat head coach Heather Semeniuk had high praise for Siebert-Timmer and shared some thoughts on her departure. "It would be great to have her for one more year—you just can't coach that size. She's a really coordinated athlete, comes with a lot of stuff that we could use yet. She has all the qualities that you want in a person coming on your team. She's respectful, good to her teammates, team is everything to her, she loves her time with her team."
The Heat closed out their first season of CIS competition with a 2-16 record.
"It was a little bit of a roller coaster," Semeniuk said of the Heat's season. "I thought right from the beginning when we started exhibition play in September that we made some progressive steps every weekend, through exhibition and into league play."