At the beginning of the season the Lethbridge College Kodiaks faced questions of “could they do it again?”
But as the regular season has come to a close and the team prepares to host the 2020 ACAC Men’s Volleyball Championship, now the question is, “could they do even better?”
“It’s about being confident, we’re ready for whoever we face,” said fourth-year player Zach Wikenheiser. “I don’t think there’s one team here who we’re too scared to run into.”
The 2019-2020 Kodiaks men finished 20-4 in the ACAC regular season, good for first place in the ACAC South Division standings and two wins short of a program-best 22-2 in 2018-19.
But last season’s edition of the Kodiaks fell just short — settling for a silver medal — and this year’s squad has been given the chance to avenge that disappointment from a year ago.
A chance in front of a home crowd.
“We had to watch somebody do it, so we know what that looks like and we want that feeling, we chase that feeling every day,” said Kodiaks head coach Greg Gibos.
If Vegas oddsmakers were taking bets on the ACAC tournament, the Kodiaks would have to look like the favourite.
Not only do they enter the three-day tournament with home court advantage, they also boast the No. 2 ranking in the nation, and the No. 1 seed.
The team’s losses over the last five months have been few and far between.
The Kodiaks opened the regular season with a disappointing result in their home opener, dropping a 3-1 decision to the SAIT Trojans. But they would bounce back the following day against SAIT, winning the first of what turned into eight straight wins.
Lethbridge went 2-2 against SAIT over the course of the season, splitting both weekend sets in October and — just two weeks ago — in February.
The Trojans, who will enter the weekend as the south division’s third seed, are one of only two teams the Kodiaks have lost to in 2018-2019. The other team, the Red Deer College Kings, are seeded just behind Lethbridge.
The Kodiaks are set to begin the tournament Thursday night against the Lakeland College Rustlers. If the Trojans win their opening game against the Keyano Huskies, the two rivals would meet in the semi-final.
“SAIT and Red Deer are good teams, but so is everybody else that’s going to be here — that’s the reason they’re here” said fifth-year player Carter Hansen.
With an identical 20-4 record to Lethbridge, the NAIT Ooks will also have hefty expectations when game action begins Thursday.
The Ooks will kick off the tournament against the Briercrest Clippers, with the winner moving on to face the winner of Red Deer and the King’s University Eagles.
“Whoever is in front of us, we’ll be excited to play them and it’s going to be a good game no matter who it is,” Hansen said.
The Kodiaks will be lead by a veteran-laden roster carrying forward its experience from last season’s ACAC championship appearance.
Hansen is most notable among the group, having broken the ACAC all-time kills record earlier this season.
“He leads by example,” said Wikenheiser, “he’ll carry us through games if he has to.”
Hansen landed 317 kills throughout the course of the regular season, good for fourth in the province.
But for the lone fifth-year player on the squad, the weekend is less about racking up stats and more about one last run with his team.
“My team will put me in a good spot to be successful,” Hansen said. “They’ll also pick up my slack if I’m slacking, that’s the trust that we have.”
For Gibos, hosting the tournament is a chance to show off the sport in the city.
“Our guys are in the gym coaching — we’ve got eight guys on our roster who go and give back and coach in the community — and I think this weekend’s more a celebration of men’s volleyball,” Gibos said.
The teams that finish first and second in the tournament will advance to the CCAA Men’s Volleyball National Championship hosted by St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., from March 11-14.
Gibos said that while that might take some of the pressure off in a gold medal game situation, the ultimate goal is still clear.
“Our goal is still to bring home a banner, but I mean, if we have to settle for something… going out to nationals is a nice consolation prize if we can get there,” he laughed.
The tournament opens Thursday with the Eagles facing the Kings at 1 p.m. Lethbridge will close opening day action against the Rustlers at 8 p.m.