Central Alberta has long been known as a power in the volleyball world, but until a few years ago, only Red Deer College had teams in Canada’s top college conference.
In 2012, the Olds College Broncos joined the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference and, at least in the women’s game, are proving to be much more than also rans.
It is a big opportunity for the local teams to embrace a budding rivalry in their own back yard and more opportunities for the local high school players to play close to home.
This weekend, the two teams came into play with top 5 in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association for the first time, and the Queens (9-1; 28-6) showed why they had the No. 1 ranking over the previously undefeated No. 4 Broncos (8-2; 26-7). RDC won both matches, including 3-0 (25-15, 25-22, 25-16) in Olds on Saturday.
“It was a weekend we had on the calendar, not just for the sake that it was against a team that hadn’t lost any games yet, but with Olds we have a little bit of rivalry with,” said Queens head coach Talbot Walton.
But this weekend was still a big step forward in the rivalry. Olds had never before so much as taken a set off of the Queens in four head-to-head match ups. The Broncos came into the showdown having dropped only one set all season and then came within one set of pulling off an upset on Friday, taking a 2-1 lead before the Queens rallied in their own gym for the win.
“It just shows how strong the region is. There’s a lot of great club teams and a lot of coaches that help supply Talbot and myself with quality athletes,” said Broncos head coach Chris Wandler on Friday. “That’s super important … the athletes we put on the court all come from grass roots, it’s great we have that profile … so it’s good to help support grass roots volleyball.”
Wandler knows Central Alberta volleyball as well as just about anyone. He was a head coach at Notre Dame High School for 15 years and was an assistant at RDC under Talbot for nine years before taking the head coaching job at Olds College in 2012 when they broke into the ACAC.
In his first year they went 12-8 and lost in the ACAC semifinal to eventual champion Briercrest. Last season they went 11-9 but fell to The King’s University College in the fifth/sixth place game.
“I like to play against Chris,” said Walton. “I think his teams are well coached and they play a style of volleyball that is more of a modern style of volleyball where you’re not afraid to take risks and make big plays, it’s very similar to what we kind of do. When you put those teams together, you’re bound to get some exciting matches.”
Wandler has gone beyond the Central Alberta borders for his recruiting, currently with three local players on his roster — Dana Stoyberg out of Hunting Hills High School, Naomi Jones from Lacombe and Shael Bourne out of Delburne. Though there is some program overlap between the two schools, with Olds being an agriculture based school, it means they are almost in more competition with the Lakeland Colleges in the ACAC.
On thing that hasn’t hurt the Broncos is being a new program. Athletes have been quick to realize what is going on with the women’s team at Olds.
“We recruit athletes that want to be in a rural town, and a classroom setting with high academic standards and a big town volleyball-type of program,” said Wandler. “If you don’t want to come and train and learn, maybe you’re not the type of player for us.”
Still, the Broncos do have room to grow before they catch the defending provincial and national champion Queens.
In Saturday’s match, RDC was led by outside hitter Miranda Dawe with 15 kills, eight digs and two stuff blocks, while libero Maddi Quinn had another solid night with 15 digs.
“Miranda Dawe had the weekend we were hoping for,” said Walton. “Last year sitting behind people like Brooke (Sutter) and Amber (Adolf), this was a good tester weekend just to show what level of play she can achieve and I think she did an outstanding job of that.”
The men’s program is a long way behind the women at Olds College, sitting at 0-10 (1-30), though they brought in new head coach Rob Meckling prior to the start of the season, taking over a roster with a dearth of talent. They were swept aside in six straight sets on the weekend, including 3-0 (25-17, 25-23, 25-15) on Friday by the No. 1 ranked Kings (9-1; 28-7) in Olds.
The Kings were led by setter Luke Brisbane with two kills, one block and 30 assists.
A rivalry between the two schools is inevitable and it can be big for the development of volleyball at the region.
“There’s enough diversity here where it gives kids in Central Alberta the option to stay home and go to two programs that are both very, very good and play at a high level,” said Walton. “And I think that it also trickles down into our club systems and school systems too where … those athletes can come out and watch and see some really high level of volleyball, so that when they go back and their coach asks them to do something they already have a role model or at least an idea of what it’s supposed to look like in their head.”
This weekend RDC has a home-and-home series with the SAIT Trojans, playing in Red Deer on Friday and in Calgary on Saturday.