The sound of numerous volleyballs making contact with the wooden floor echoed loudly across the War Memorial Gymnasium. The University of British Columbia men’s volleyball team arrived at 10 a.m. on Friday to work through drills and practice a little before the game later that evening. Their visitors, from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, came in half an hour later for the very same reason. But rather than antagonism and hostility on either side of the court, UBC and SKKU had an entirely different dynamic, mainly owed to the 30-year old relationship that exists between the two schools.
Sungkyunkwan University is based in Suwon, South Korea, about 30 km from Seoul, and is ranked at 17th in the QS Asia ranking. The school also boasts a very strong volleyball program. This was something that former UBC head coach Dale Ohman was quick to capitalize on more than 30 years ago.
In the summer of 1983, the SKKU basketball team arrived with their head coach, Han, unannounced and unprepared for, and a hastily organized exhibition match was played against UBC. While the then basketball head coach Bruce Enns was not interested in any extensive sports exchange program, Ohman saw a real opportunity for both schools.
"So I heard Bruce talking with him,” said Ohman. “A little light went on in my pea-brain and after they finished I went over to Han and asked whether their school had a men's volleyball team."
So blossomed the beginning of a beautiful relationship. An agreement was set up in which there would not only be the exchange of the sports teams on a four-year cycle but also the exchange of faculty and graduate students. After that the schedule was adjusted a few times, in 1985 when the Thunderbirds spent their Christmas in Korea and also quite recently when a Korean sports team registration scandal threatened to end the partnership.
Individuals such as Ohman, Han-joo Eom, an alum of both UBC and SKKU, dean of the college of sport science at SKKU and member of the board of the international federation of volleyball, and current UBC head coach Richard Schick, who have devoted years to the exchange, have continuously seen its importance for both sports programs.
"Volleyball is one of the most international games where it is not uncommon to have relationships like this and to play these types of international matches,” said Schick, who is in his 12th season as UBC head coach.
“It’s two very different cultures and it is really neat to be able to experience those things -- it opens your eyes to a whole new way of thinking and playing and training.”
That doesn’t mean that the games are not at all competitive. In fact, it is quite the opposite. While it is a time of mutual advising, practising and learning, it is also a time for some of the best competitive plays seen all year. It does not help that SKKU has defeated UBC the majority of the times the teams have faced off.
"Traditionally, SKK has kicked our butts. These are both competitive matches. Its good for us that we have a bye week and we can go into something like this with some quality competition," said Schick.
The T-Birds took the game on Friday, winning 3-0 with set scores 25-14, 25-23 and 25-18. UBC powered through the evening, and took no prisoners. Milan Nikic made the most assists of the game (32) and outside hitters Ben Chow and Jarrid Ireland shared the top slot for most kills with 12 each.
SKKU responded likewise the following evening, coming back with a vengeance to defeat UBC in three straight sets (25-16, 25-22 and 25-21).
The two teams went hard at each other from the first point in the first set, but it wasn’t long before SKKU started increasing the gap, eventually winning the set. SKKU defender Jun Heuk Jung proved to be a hard wall to get by with five total blocks in the game, only contested by Irvan Brar (four) who was brought in at the middle of the first set. Even though the final two sets were closer, SKKU managed to keep the ‘Birds at bay to take the second game of the weekend.
"We bailed them out a couple of times by missing serves but these guys don’t shy away from a challenge. They go up and they bang the ball every single situation. They are super aggressive and they ran a lot of combos,” said Chow, who also won player of the game on Saturday.
Both Chow and third-year Mac McNicol, who trained with SKKU over the summer, agreed that consistency was one thing the Korean visitors had that they did not. The T-Birds were largely unsuccessful limiting the SKKU multiple point runs and faltered in aggressive servicing at moments when it mattered.
"We didn’t respond to being pushed, it’s as simple as that. SKK played a lot better today and were very aggressive,” said Schick.
“When one team pushes you around and you don’t fight back that’s what happens. Similar to what we did last night. I am sure they were motivated to come in today and prove their worth.”
The last time UBC faced SKKU was in October 2008, and that encounter left the T-Birds in the dust with three straight set losses at 25-15, 25-17, 25-17. SKKU had 47 total kills, compared to UBC’s meagre 29. Sung Ryul Park made 16 total kills while the highest scorer for UBC, Steve Gotch, got only nine kills.
However, looking at UBC’s Friday game, and some parts of Saturday’s game it can be said that both teams are more or less on equal terms. In the first game the ‘Birds made 41 total kills in the game and SKKU made 35. The following day, SKKU beat UBC with 45 total kills to the ‘Birds' 31.
"Unfortunately, you’re always left with that taste in your mouth but there were definitely some good things that we can take and learn from as we move into our league," said Schick.
With this game behind them, the Thunderbirds can now focus on getting back into the groove of the Canada West. UBC has the most kills and assists overall in the conference so far, and are currently fifth in the standings with 20 points. Over the next few weeks they will be facing formidable teams like the Trinity Western Spartans and the University of Calgary Dinos. Hopefully, this bye weekend and set of friendly matches against an old rival allowed the ‘Birds to prepare well for the final stretch of the season.