The University of Winnipeg (U of W) men’s volleyball team delivered a commanding performance in the 2023 Wesmen Classic, winning all four of their games in the Dec. 28 to 30 weekend tournament. They were the only undefeated team.
The Wesmen trained through the winter break to prepare for the games. Middle blocker Ethan Duncan, who was named tournament MVP, has no complaints about giving up some of his holiday downtime.
“It’s obviously nice to just be able to play,” Duncan says. “I love volleyball. I love being with the guys and to be able to do it throughout Christmas. It’s awesome.”
The Wesmen played their last regular-season game of the fall term on Dec. 2. Following a short break over the beginning of the exam period, Duncan says the team spent the holiday season focusing on fundamentals in the gym.
“We got a lot of good practices in before Christmas and just after ... standing there digging balls, bumping balls, setting balls, just hundreds and hundreds of reps,” he says. “When you can put it into a game, and you know that you’ve been working your ass off ... if you can refine (those skills) it’s going to help us out in the long run.”
The Classic pits four Canada West teams against four competitors from Ontario, Québec and the Atlantic provinces. The round-robin format ensures Canada West teams only face opponents from outside their conference and vice-versa.
Veteran outside attacker Nigel Nielsen says the opportunity to play against unfamiliar faces was a fun change of pace.
“It’s not very often that a lot of the East Coast teams get to come out here, and same with us,” he says. “We build pretty fundamental relationships (with) a lot of these universities that are doing this. And (the Classic) allows us to be able to take our team and go explore the East Coast.”
The Classic began as the men’s basketball Golden Boy Tournament in 1967. Originally played in what is now the Bulman Student Centre, the tournament migrated to the former Winnipeg Arena and Convention Centre before settling on its present-day home at the Duckworth Centre in the mid-1980s.
In 2017, the tournament featured men’s volleyball and adopted a four-year rotation to include all four Wesmen court-sport teams.
At the time, Wesmen men’s volleyball head coach Larry McKay told the Winnipeg Free Press that the break in 50 years of tradition was “risky” but added that “the volleyball community in Winnipeg and Manitoba turned out, and it was a hugely popular event.”
U of W athletic director Dave Crook says Brandon University and the University of Manitoba’s participation in the Classic gives all three schools a mutually beneficial opportunity to support one another through turnout.
He says the tournament is a “great opportunity” for Manitoban athletes to prepare for the imminent return to league games without losing holiday family time to interprovincial travel.
This year was only the second time the tournament featured men’s volleyball. Nielsen, who joined the Wesmen in 2018, says it “feels great” to have had the opportunity to participate in a Classic despite a brief hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Usually, if you’re spending four or five years here, you get at least one opportunity. I didn’t know if that was going to happen or not,” he says. “I’m really grateful to be able to take part in something that’s so big in the province.”
The Wesmen started off strong on the first day of play, setting themselves up for more explosive performances on the second and third days of the tournament.
In their opening match against the University of Guelph Gryphons Thursday afternoon, the Wesmen gave up the first set by two points before roaring back with a 25-17 win in set two.
Freshman Luke Lodewyks took the court alongside the most-seasoned Wesmen players for all three winning sets. His third kill of the match, returning a dig from Guelph’s Cameron Chadwick, drew a surge of triumphant shouts from both the Wesmen bench and the 150-person afternoon crowd.
The Wesmen finished out the match with a decisive 25-18 final set. Fourth-year Isaiah Olfert led the team’s offense with 17 total kills and five in the second set alone. He says their performance against Guelph reflected the team’s biggest strengths.
“We have a really good offense,” he says. “We have a very scrappy team. We’re good at playing when it gets ugly.”
Nielsen says the team played a “sluggish” defensive game early in the match before “turning up the heat” later on.
“We took a step back, slowed it down a little bit. Once you kind of got a roll going, then it all kind of just builds off that,” he says.
A fresh-faced lineup of mostly backups took the court for the Wesmen Thursday evening, when they beat the University of New Brunswick Reds 3-2 in their closest match of the weekend.
Several spirited sophomores set themselves apart with career-high performances. Thomas Bridle registered an impressive 15 kills, more than doubling his previous single-match record. Tristan Arnold made 52 assists, nearly as many as his whole 2022-23 season, and Luke Gard had 13 kills.
McKay’s decision to run the younger lineup for the second match points to the Wesmen’s training focus going into the second half of the season: team play.
“We’re better when everybody on our team is involved, offensively and defensively,” assistant coach Rob Olfert says. “That’s why the tournament was good ... lots of games and lots more opportunity to kind of figure out who we are as a team and how we’re going to piece it all together.”
The Wesmen performed dominantly in match three, taking out the Université Laval Rouge et Or 25-15 in the first set and 25-16 in both the second and third.
The final match of the weekend vs. the Dalhousie University Tigers was another shutout by the Wesmen, albeit a closer one. Lodewyks led the offense, starting for the first time in his USports career and scoring a team-high with seven kills.
The 400-person crowd watched in rapt attention during the opening rallies, but relaxed as Winnipeg took an early lead, winning set one 25-17.
They remained in control for the rest of the match, but Dalhousie didn’t go down without a fight, coming back from a sixpoint deficit at the last minute in the third set only to lose 27-25 to the Wesmen.
Duncan was awarded tournament MVP in a short ceremony after the final match. Sophomore Liam Kristjanson was named a tournament all-star, as were the University of Manitoba’s Bryce Cancilla and Ben Carleton and Brandon’s Philipp Lauter.
Published in Volume 78, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2024)