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Women’s volleyball season ends abruptly

By David Song, March 31 2020 —

They say life comes at you fast.

After finishing the regular season with an 11–18 record, the ninth-seeded University of Calgary Dinos were prepared to host this year’s U Sports Women’s Volleyball Championship from Friday, Mar. 13 to Sunday, Mar. 15. For half a dozen fifth-year players — Kate Pexman, Beth Vinnell, Rachel Solecki, Autumn Davidson, Kennedy Snape and Adriel Goodman — it was to be their farewell party, their last ride into the sunset. And for the entire team, it would have been a final chance at redemption after a disappointing season. 

Dinos players and coaches woke up on Thursday morning to the cancellation of sporting events all over North America, including the March Madness tournament. Amid the uncertainty, most were still prepared to go on with volleyball. But by 9 p.m. on Thursday evening, head coach Natalie Gurnsey received the fateful news at a coach’s meeting — the U Sports Championship would be called off at the eleventh hour. 

Vinnell and her teammates experienced a tumultuous Thursday leading up to the cancellation. “The whole thing didn’t feel real,” the veteran middle remarked. “[At one point], it went to: nationals will still be going, but with no fans. We were going to be playing a scrimmage for nationals. The fans are what make nationals what it is.” 

The first big change was to Thursday evening’s banquet. Originally meant for all eight championship teams, the celebration and award ceremony was modified such that only two teams would be present at a time. As the Dinos waited an extra two-and-a-half hours for their turn, rapid-fire news updates continued to pour in. Nationals would be happening, but with a restricted number of fans. Nationals would be happening, but only with family members in attendance.

Once it was announced that no fans would be admitted to the event, anxiety levels cranked up a notch. Any player will tell you about the critical energy that fans bring to a game, and that playing without them would not have been the same. Ultimately, the Dinos did not have to mourn the loss of their home court advantage for long, as news of the tournament’s cancellation came soon after. 

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got home and I was like, ‘what the heck? How could this happen to us?’” recalls first-year outside hitter Trinity Solecki. “I called a couple of my teammates and we were so angry. We knew it was completely out of our control, but it just hurt us so much. All I had was anger.” 

The Dinos would have opened nationals against the 22–2 Trinity Western Spartans, the number one seed that they pushed to the brink during regular season action on Nov. 28 last year. According to Vinnell, the loss of that rematch was particularly hard to swallow. “We’d been training so hard for the three weeks leading up to [nationals]. I think we were all excited to take on Trinity Western and show them — and show ourselves — how far we’d come and how well we can compete with those top teams even though our record might not have necessarily shown that. It was also really weird for the seniors because we had played our last game and we didn’t even know it.”

In order to communicate in a timely fashion, Gurnsey had to break the news over text message on Thursday night. She followed it up with a team meeting on Friday morning, where athletic director Jason Kerswill shared his sympathies and explained how U Sports arrived at the decision to cancel nationals. Afterwards, the players enjoyed a cake that had previously been ordered for an alumni event, processing the turn of events by spending time together.

“There wasn’t a lot of questions,” said Gurnsey. “It was obviously disappointing, and we shared that emotion together, but we moved on and gave each other hugs. We loved each other, because there’s not really too much we can say.” 

In spite of a frustrating end to the season, members of the program are optimistic about next year. They rebounded from a dismal 2-11 start by winning seven out of 12 games in 2020. The departure of Vinnell and her fellow fifth-years will leave voids on both sides of the ball, but the Dinos will retain some veteran experience in setter Lexi Peart and outside hitter Kenzie Vaandering. Meanwhile, younger athletes like Julia Sprentz, Anna Wittenberg, Marina Culo and Trinity Solecki are poised to take the next step in their careers.

“The future is bright,” Gurnsey said of her up-and-coming talent. “They’re all extremely talented, very smart players. They were able to get opportunities to play that they wouldn’t have gotten if our experienced players hadn’t gotten injuries. It’s a double-edged sword, but they’re going to be further ahead for next season, and I’m excited about that.” 

“I wasn’t the best I’ve ever been this year, and there’s definitely still so much growing [to do],” Solecki acknowledged. “But since I’ve had that experience, I’m more confident in myself, and I think my team is also more confident.” 

Ultimately, the outgoing senior players will continue to support the Dinos in other ways. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, and of her own career’s ups and downs, Vinnell had some heartfelt words for her younger teammates.

“In sports, it’s so easy to place so much of your identity on your sport,” she said. “When you experience moments when the sport is taken away from you, know that you are so much more than just a volleyball player, and you have so much more worth.” 

“In sports, it’s so easy to place so much of your identity on your sport,” she said. “When you experience moments when the sport is taken away from you, know that you are so much more than just a volleyball player, and you have so much more worth.”

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