Brian Swane, Special to Canada West
EDMONTON - The Alberta Pandas spent the beginning of this week finalizing travel plans, packing their bags, and, of course, practicing.
It’s quite the opposite from the same time last season, when they had no games left to play.
And it’s that memory that has spurred the Pandas through a dominant 2016-17 that will culminate this weekend at the U SPORTS Women's Volleyball Championship, running Friday to Sunday in Toronto.
The newly-crowned Canada West-champion Pandas, who last year failed to reach nationals for the first time in six years and only the second time since 2003, are seeded No. 1 for the eight-team tournament and will face the host Ryerson Rams in a quarter-final.
“Last year left a real mark on us and we've used that to really fuel everything ... it’s a lot easier to do when you're drawing upon something like that,” says Pandas coach Laurie Eisler.
Joining the Pandas for nationals will be UBC and Trinity Western. At Canada West Final Four in Edmonton last weekend, Alberta bested the T-Birds in four sets to win gold, while TWU punched its ticket to the Mattamy Athletic Centre by defeating UBC Okanagan for bronze.
Alberta has been on a mission since the outset of the season nearly four months ago, going 22-2 to finish atop the conference standings. At one point the Pandas spent 11 consecutive weeks ranked first in the U SPORTS Top 10.
"With the experience of falling short (in 2016) we really have done a lot of soul-searching as a team and individually of ways that we need to improve,” says Eisler, who was named the 2016-17 Canada West Coach of the Year. “There’s no magic pill for it, you've just got to do the dirty work and do the hard work and this team has done that. They've done absolutely everything asked of them and beyond."
Canada West’s streak of nine straight titles was stopped at nationals last year when Toronto defeated TWU in the final. Alberta last won the championship 10 years ago, while UBC won six straight from 2008 to 2013 and the Spartans captured gold in 2015.
Now in her 26th season as head coach at Alberta, Eisler is leading the Pandas to nationals for a 20th time. A seven-time champion at this tournament, Eisler has seen everything and is surprised by nothing.
“When they say anything is possible, it really is in sport. (The key) is not taking anything for granted and playing point by point. Sometimes bad things happen, we've had all sorts of different types of adversity that we have to deal with at the championship and you just have to keep plugging along and controlling what you have control over,” says Eisler.
"We've been really steady, especially under significant pressure,” she says. “We might bend but we don't break and that's a really special quality this time of the year."
All of the games from the U SPORTS national championship can be seen live on USPORTS.live
No. 1 ALBERTA PANDAS
QF vs No. 8 Ryerson at 6 p.m. ET (4 p.m. MT) Fri., March 17
Regular season: 22-2, first
Playoffs: defeated UBC Okanagan 3-0 in semifinal match; defeated UBC 3-1 in gold-medal match
Canada West awards: Player of the Year – Meg Casault; Coach of the Year – Laurie Eisler; First Team All Stars– Meg Casault; Second Team All Stars – Kacey Otto, Mariah Walsh; All Rookies – Vanessa Jarman
National championships: 7 (1995-2000, 2007)
No. 2 TRINITY WESTERN SPARTANS
QF vs No. 2 McMaster at noon ET (9 a.m. PT) Fri., March 17
Regular season: 21-3, second
Playoffs: defeated Mount Royal 2-0 in best-of-three quarter-final series; lost to UBC 3-1 in semifinal match; defeated UBC Okanagan 3-0 in bronze-medal match
Canada West awards: First Team All Stars– Sophie Carpentier, Nikki Cornwall, Elly Wendel
National championships: 1 (2015)
No. 3 UBC
QF vs No. 6 Western at 2 p.m. ET (11 a.m. PT) Fri., March 17
Regular season: 20-4, third
Playoffs: defeated Thompson Rivers 2-0 in best-of-three quarter-final series; defeated Trinity Western 3-1 in semi-final match; lost to Alberta 3-1 in gold-medal match
Canada West awards: First Team All Stars – Danielle Brisebois; Second Team All Stars – Maggie Li; All Rookies – Olivia Furlan
National championships: 10 (1972, 1974, 1977, 1978, 2008-2013)