By David Song, January 20 2020 —
The Dinos women’s volleyball team got off to a rough start in 2019, winning just four of the 17 games they played before the new year. With half a dozen first-years joining the roster and two starting outside hitters — Kate Pexman and Hannah Tanasichuk — missing time with injury, the team initially struggled to find their rhythm. A string of four ugly losses to the MacEwan Griffins and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in November exposed a frustrating lack of consistency, especially on offense.
“I knew this season was going to be a little bit of a journey and a process,” spoke head coach Natalie Gurnsey. “We have a lot of new faces, and I knew there was going to be some girls that needed to gain experience on the fly.”
However, once the newer players began to amass said experience, things started to turn around. The Dinos finished 2019 with a sweep of the Regina Cougars followed by two hard-fought losses against the Trinity Western Spartans. Calgary has taken that positive momentum into 2020, opening the year with two 3–1 wins against the Manitoba Bisons.
The Trinity Western series, in particular, was a key litmus test for the Dinos. The Spartans have held the top spot in the conference for most of the year, with a 14–2 record and a wealth of talent led by outside hitter Hilary Howe. Yet the Dinos held their own, especially at the Block Party on Nov. 28, where they won two sets and pushed the number one team in Canada to the brink.
Outside hitter Trinity Solecki revealed that her team’s performances against Trinity Western were a major confidence builder. “We set a new standard for ourselves — like, that is our minimum level of play. Our mindset changed, and I think we had more fun. When we play loose and fun, we’re with every single team,” said Solecki.
Solecki has been an immense addition to the Dinos roster. The six foot one first-year is firmly entrenched in the starting lineup and is second on the team with 111 kills. Even more impressive is Solecki’s commitment to defense from her position — her 108 digs are second only to veteran libero Kennedy Snape. The Cochrane High School alumnus has stepped up on both sides of the ball to fill the void left by Pexman and Tanasichuk.
“She’s definitely an offensive threat,” Gurnsey said of Solecki, who joins her older sister Rachel on the team. “She’s a nice, big, physical player, really good ball control and I knew that when I recruited her. It’s always challenging for a rookie to be able to repeat her performance from night to night, so I feel like Trinity’s been on a really good pathway. Her numbers are getting better and better.”
As the Dinos aim for a big second half of the season, they must also prepare to bid farewell to a number of long-time mainstays. Pexman and Snape are part of a group of outgoing fifth-years that also includes middles Beth Vinnell and Autumn Davidson, plus outside hitters Adriel Goodman and Rachel Solecki. All were part of a team that made the previous Canada West Championship in March of 2019.
For Vinnell, who leads the Dinos with 127 kills, facing the end of her varsity career is bittersweet. “It has been a journey, but it has been awesome. I have had a lot of ups and downs, but I think they’ve really helped me grow into the athlete and the person I am today. It’s kind of sad knowing that it’s my last year, but six years is a really long time. I’m ready to give it all I’ve got and move on to the next one.”
A special part of the Dinos volleyball program is the rapport shared by the men’s and women’s teams. At the annual Block Party doubleheader, the female players can be seen giving high-fives and greetings to their male counterparts as they step out for the second game of the evening. It is a relationship that has very much grown in recent years.
“The high-five thing is something we started in the last couple of years. It’s nice to have that little connection before [the men] start their game,” Vinnell explained. “I’d say we’re definitely close with them. We’ll hang out and do stuff outside of volleyball. There’s a lot of awesome guys on that team and we get along with them super well.”
“In the past, we haven’t been as close with the men’s team,” added Solecki. “This year, we’ve just clicked more, and I think we’ve wanted to be more together because we play the same times every single weekend. They can support us, and we support them.”
Ultimately, Gurnsey knows that her team has more work to do in order to find sustained success in 2020. “We have to keep putting up the numbers that we are on offense. Our passing has gotten more consistent, and we’ve got to be able to do that when it matters, after 20 points. We’ve been in a position to win at 20 points, but I think there were times where we’ve made our mistakes, and we’ve got to clean that up.
Over the past weekend, the Dinos played a spectacular game to ring in the new year. They dominated an offensive heyday against the Brandon University Bobcats — winning three straight sets in their home gym.
Dinos return to Calgary Jan. 23 and 24 in the Jack Simpson Gymnasium. They’ll take on the Mount Royal University Cougars as part of the Crowchild Classic.