Teams returning to Winnipeg for men’s volleyball nationals after abrupt COVID cancellation in 2020

The Queen’s University Gaels feel like the 2020 U Sports men’s volleyball national championship was ripped away from them, but they weren’t the only team that left Manitoba frustrated and disappointed.

Queen’s is one of six teams competing in Winnipeg this week that were part of the 2020 edition of the event that was cancelled the night before the four quarter-final matches because of COVID-19.

Shane Gabel was part of the Gaels squad that captured the Ontario University Athletics conference championship two years ago. The six-foot-three outside hitter from Winnipeg said the tournament’s cancellation was difficult to swallow.

“It was a very emotional time because … not being given the opportunity to compete it means a lot to some people, and it was a really emotional night,” he recalled. “But that was two long years ago and now we’re back here on a business trip.”

Queen’s, which has never earned a medal at nationals, defeated the Brock University Badgers in straight sets to capture conference bronze, and earn another trip to Manitoba.

The fourth-year kinesiology student admits it’s weird being back in his hometown in March, but says it’s vindication to be back.

“I think it’s redemption for every team that was there two years ago,” Gabel said. “I don’t think anyone didn’t have a sour taste in their mouth after receiving the news.”

Queen’s University Gaels left side Shane Gabel goes up for the ball during an Ontario conference match against the Brock University Badgers earlier this season. (Submitted by Queen’s Athletics/Robin Kasem)

Queen’s is seeded sixth and matches up against the No. 3 University of Alberta Golden Bears, a staple at nationals over the years, in quarter-final play Friday at 2:30 p.m. at the Investors Group Athletic Centre.

Alberta is one of four teams from the Canada West conference in the field, which has won six consecutive national titles and 24 of the last 25.

Alberta’s rival, the University of Calgary Dinos, are seeded seventh and clash with the No. 2 McMaster University Marauders in the first quarter-final at 12:30 p.m.

Bisons in tough against Spartans

The other two Canada West squads square off in the premiere match of the day as the top-ranked and defending national champion Trinity Western University Spartans — from 2019 — take on the host and No. 8 University of Manitoba Bisons at 6 p.m.

The last time the Bisons hosted nationals was in 1976 when the UBC Thunderbirds won it all.

Including playoffs, the Spartans boast a 22-1 record in Canada West play this season, and arrive at nationals having dropped just one of their last 16 sets — that came in a four-set triumph over Alberta in the conference title game.

The Bisons were just 8-13 this season, and bowed out of the first round of the conference playoffs. However, Manitoba won its last match, 3-1 over the UBC Okanagan Heat on March 5.

The University of Manitoba Bisons have captured 10 national university championships in men’s volleyball. Another victory this weekend would go down as the most unlikeliest in the program’s storied history. (Submitted by University of Manitoba Bisons/Dave Mahussier)

Manitoba head coach Arnd Ludwig knows his team is going to have to operate on all cylinders if it’s going to have any chance to take down the powerhouse Spartans.

“We need to play at 100 per cent and we need to follow the game plan 100 per cent if we want to have a chance against a team like that,” he said.

Ludwig thinks his team might have an advantage serving, and exploit Trinity’s serve receive game. By serving well, the Bisons would be able to set up their block game to try and thwart Trinity’s offensive attack.

He also knows his starting setter, Jack Mandryk, will be key in getting Manitoba’s quick-flow offence going.

“As soon as we have to play high balls against Trinity, it’s going to be very, very difficult for us,” Ludgwig said. “Jack is a very key, very important key in the game against Trinity.”

Jack Mandryk of the University of Manitoba Bisons sets the ball for a teammate’s quick spike during a Canada West conference men’s volleyball match against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies earlier this season. Mandryk and the host Bisons will have to be at the top of their games if they’re to upset the top-seeded Trinity Western University Spartans in a U Sports national championship quarterfinal match Friday. (Submitted by University of Manitoba Bisons/Dave Mahussier)

Mandryk, a fifth-year player with the Bisons, knows it will be a challenge to knock off the Spartans, but believes anything can happen on the volleyball court.

“Our expectation is to progress and do as well as we can, and hopefully get into a gold-medal match,” he said.

Unlike the Spartans, Mandryk feels his team has an advantage by entering nationals fresh off a three-week hiatus from match action after an arduous season.

“I think that rest is kind of like a silent benefit of not going as far as we would have liked to,” said the product of Lockport, Man.

The final quarter-final of the day pits the No. 4 University of Toronto Varsity Blues against the fourth-seeded Université de Sherbrooke Vert et Or. That match is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.

The consolation semifinals are Saturday afternoon, with the championship semis to follow in the evening. Placement matches are Sunday, with the gold-medal match set to start at 4 p.m.

Both Mandryk and Gabel have dreams of being draped in the championship banner come Sunday, but for Gabel it’s particularly special.

“There’s a lot of people that have been itching to watch me play or come out and support the team, that just haven’t been able to in the last couple years with COVID,” Gabel said.

“Even though it’s only technically home-court advantage for one team here, I hope it will feel like home-court advantage for me as well.”

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