This season, the UBC Thunderbirds finished the CIS championship in a position that many teams in Canada would see as a positive. But for a team that has dominated the league over the past eight years, this result left the ‘Birds with a bitter taste in their mouths. Still, they have plenty to be optimistic about.
“It may not have gone the way we wanted, but as a team we still learned a lot throughout our playoff run and I think we can take those lessons and apply them into our preparation for next year,” said left-side hitter Danielle Brisebois.
One quality that has set the Thunderbirds apart from their rivals is their remarkable ability to rebound, especially during the playoffs. Time and time again, the ‘Birds have managed to bounce back due to their exceptional skill and their insatiable hunger for the CIS title.
But last week they failed to do just that. They fell hard against the University of Montreal Carabins, a loss that cost them their potential 11th CIS title. And in the consolation semi-final on Sunday morning, a battle for the fifth position and their pride against the Ottawa Gee-Gees, they came up short.
Head coach Doug Reimer, who is finishing off his 18th season with the ‘Birds, said it was “disappointing” not to play at the same elite level his team was at a week before playoff time.
The world stood still as the T-Birds defeated their sister school UBC Okanagan Heat (3-1) to secure their place in the championship. For them, it was a chance to return to glory after a crushing defeat last year at the hands of Manitoba.
Their first day in the championship, the University of Montreal Carabins strong-armed the T-Birds out of their gold prospects with a 3-0 win, giving the ‘Birds their first quarterfinal loss in 10 years.
“Montreal had a solid and experienced team, but I feel that if we had pushed through in the first set we might have got rolling,” said Reimer, who led the team to six consecutive national titles.
Despite losing each set by considerable margins, the 'Birds still fought hard. They managed to get the lead in the first set (8-2) and kept the opposition at bay for a while, but kills by Carabin attackers Vicky Savard and Marie-Sophie Nadeau made it all the more difficult for a T-Bird comeback. Set scores were (25-22, 25-18, 25-16).
The UBC’s fortune had begun to look up when they faced off against Laval, who the Carabins had defeated to win the Quebec Student Sport Federation (RSEQ). They beat Laval soundly in three straight sets (25-12, 25-21, 33-31).
Alessandra Gentile made a whopping 32 assists and two kills in this game, overshadowing her counterpart on the other team with 24. Third-year Brisebois and fifth-year Lisa Barclay once again scored important points with 16 and 11 kills, respectively. A final kill from Brisebois finished off a long third set at 33-31. Emily Cicon was the player of the match.
But moving into the consolation final, in which the Thunderbirds were strong favourites, they lost whatever traction they had gained. The T-Birds lost in three sets to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, a team that many would consider stable but mostly mediocre.
“We played a great match against Laval so I was surprised that we didn't follow that up in our consolation final against Ottawa,” Reimer said.
It is easy to find where the 'Birds went wrong in their third game of the championship. In the opening set they conceded a seven-point lead (8-1) to the Gee-Gees and could not recover. In the second, the Gee-Gees took a lead at 16-12, and in the third, despite efforts from the ‘Birds the Gee-Gees clinched the set. Final set scores for the three sets was 25-20, 25-22 and 25-21. The game gave an anti-climactic finish to an otherwise intense season.
“This season was full of ups and downs. We really struggled to play consistently,” said Brisebois. “Our best play did come towards the end but we were not able to maintain it throughout the tournament. I am still very proud of our team.”
Brisebois has been phenomenal the entire season, not excluding the championship. In all three games she held the highest number of kills for the 'Birds, despite this being her first CIS championship as a starting player.
Veterans like Abbey Keeping, Lisa Barclay and Rosie Schlagintweit held the games down with several kills each and played well defensively.
“While it is frustrating to not have made it through the first round, we earned our way to the Nationals after an up and down season and had our crack at it,” said Reimer.
Trinity Western University defeated the Alberta Pandas to win the gold in the final. Both teams were from the Canada West, which says a lot about the league.
It will be interesting to see what the future has in store, not just for the T-Birds but also for the Canada West and the CIS as a whole. A lot more teams are now stepping into the fray, making what was already one of the hardest championships in Canada even more competitive.
The question on a lot of minds is whether the Thunderbirds' stronghold on the Canada West is finally over.
“We weren't even sure about making nationals with our record of the season,” said Brisebois. "With that, alongside all the injuries and problems we had to overcome, being able to have finished sixth in the country is still pretty nice.”
The future is uncertain, but for a UBC team that has fallen from grace, this could be the first step to getting back on their feet.