By Bob Carter
Call it volleyball pinball.
More than a dozen AAA boys teams have been bouncing up and down the rankings this month as contenders, pretenders and wanna-bes change places. The Week 3 poll (Oct. 17) saw all 15 ranked teams in a new position.
Cranbrook’s Mount Baker rose to No. 1 in the fourth rankings (Oct. 24), with former leader Mount Boucherie – the best of the Okanagan – slipping to the fifth spot it held before.
Perhaps the rankings’ volatility draws from inconsistent play, or different rates of development, or even bad luck for some.
Defending champ Semiahmoo, for instance, can trace its drop to the bottom of the rankings to losing setter Jag Gill for much of the season because of an ankle injury. (In AA, 2016 titlist Langley Christian also has sorely missed star Brodie Hofer, who suffered broken toes).
Oak Bay coach Al Carmichael, head of the ranking committee, delivered a concise reason for the AAA’s rapid movement: “a lot of parity.”
Carmichael, whose Island team is ranked third, thinks the AAA’s top 10 are all potential medalists at the Big Kahuna BC Volleyball Championships in Langley (Nov. 29-Dec. 2). Performance in tournaments during the season greatly influences the rankings, but various factors influence performance, including availability of players.
“One or two players on a team get the flu,” Carmichael said, “and the results are drastically different.”
Case in point: The Fraser Valley’s Earl Marriott had seven players available when it journeyed to Kelowna for the Best of the West tournament this month. The Mariners went 1-2 in their Friday pool and eventually tied for fifth in a tough field. The next weekend they had 13 players and won the TRU Howler in Kamloops, beating Oak Bay in the final.
The gold helped EMS climb a notch to second.
“As long as we’re in the top three,” Marriott coach Al Schill said this week, “I’m fine with it. Everyone says that No. 1 is the spot you don’t really want to be, so this is OK.”
If being top-ranked adds pressure, that burden has shifted to Mount Baker. The Wild regularly play in Alberta tournaments and have never worn the AAA crown, though they earned silver in 2001 and 2009.
Coach Karley Ferner said the players were excited when told of the top ranking. “But they’re teenagers,” she said. “They’re trying to hold it in a little and look cool and calm. The school is excited about it, and the community is too.”
The Wild had one of their best showings in the Best of the West, beating eventual champ Jasper Place of Edmonton, Earl Marriott and host Kelowna in pool play before losing to Abbotsford Christian (AA No. 2) in the first round of the playoffs.
“We knew we’d have a strong team with good height,” Ferner said. “There’s a lot of power and physically strong players. The boys can put the ball down.”
The front row features a pair of 6-5 Grade 12s – right-side attacker Caleb Peters, who will play at the College of the Rockies next fall, and power Dawson Atwood. The big additions this season came in the middle with Grade 11s Jordan Simpson (6-7) and Sheldon Thomas (6-4).
“Last year we knew we were lacking a little in the middle,” Ferner said, “so we’re excited getting those two.”
Riley Byman, a six-foot Grade 11 handles most of the setting duty. “He’s got really great hands and finds players very well,” Ferner said, “but he’s not as tall as our Grade 12 setter (6-2 Colden Edey).”
Earl Marriott has one of AAA’s best returnees in 6-2 attacker Malachi McMullin, part of a long family line of outstanding volleyball players. McMullin led the Mariners to a fifth-place finish in last year’s BCs and was a first-team all-star.
“He’s still an exceptional player,” Schill said. “He’s really a student of the game, all aspects, and a good leader.”
Other returnees include setter Jason McGonigle, who started last year as a Grade 10; Grade 12 libero Josh Francois; Grade 11 middles Nick Prokopich and Gurshawn Kaler; Grade 12 left side Chris Hamilton and Grade 11 right side Ben Schill, the coach’s son.
“Our strength is our offense,” Al Schill said. “It’s an athletic bunch who excel in multiple sports. And the fact they’ve been together so long, pretty much three years, is important.”
Oak Bay’s history of multi-sport athletes carries right into this year’s volleyball team. Six of the Barbers’ top seven players, Carmichael said, are skilled in other sports (three in basketball, two in soccer and one in rugby).
The team, consisting mostly of Grade 12s, has been on an upward swing. The Barbers won the VIU tournament, taking the final against Royal Bay, which had beaten them in the Camosun tourney.
“We’re still on a steep learning curve,” Carmichael said. “We’ve got some big, good athletes playing volleyball instead of big volleyball (only) players.”
Oak Bay has one player with Team BC experience, 6-5 middle blocker Cam Hayes, who also plays on the right side. “He’s improved most as an attacker,” Carmichael said.
The top power is Ben Johannknecht, and 6-7 Riley Cronk returns at setter.
“Last year was his first as a setter, and he’s doing a very good job,” Carmichael said. “He puts up a big block on the right side and provides control of the net as a setter.”
The longtime coach, who has led teams to five BC titles, thinks the rankings are starting to stabilize. “No major changes will be coming,” he predicted.
Marriott’s Schill said this season has been more difficult to gauge teams because he hasn’t seen as many as in the past, citing the possibility that some schools are travelling less because of financial concerns. But he thinks the top “five or six” teams can beat anyone.
“When you go around to tournaments,” Schill said, “you don’t think very often ‘that’s a team which can definitely be in the final.’ There’s going to be a lot of close matches (at the BCs).”
Current No. 1 Mount Baker, meanwhile, will try to keep all of that in mind as it guards against a letdown.
“It’s not often we’re in this position,” Ferner said, “so we’ll try to make sure we don’t take it for granted. We’re not going to get too comfy.”