Toronto, ON- We started our series on the hardwood, so we are going to stay there for week two. For anyone just joining us, this is Dynasties, Sports’ four-part series throughout March profiling some of the most decisive runs of dominance among Women’sWomen’s U SPORTS Programs in History.
For Part Two of our series, we look to Canada West volleyball. Canada West Women’s Volleyball had multiple options to choose from, including Winnipeg Wesman’s six straight titles from 1982 to 1988 and the Alberta Pandas’ six consecutive titles from 1995 through 2000.
The team we will profile, though, that won on a tiebreak thanks to five Canada West Championships to the Alberta Golden Bears four, is the UBC Thunderbirds Women’s Volleyball team’s run of six straight national gold medals in seven seasons from 2008 to 2014.
The Thunderbirds program can easily be labelled as the pinnacle of success in U SPORTS in the last 20 years, with more national appearances and medals than any other program in any sport.
Entering the 2007-2008 season, the Thunderbirds were coming off relatively recent success, with a 2006 Canada West Title in the rearview for the program. In 2007-2008, the Thunderbirds had a strong year, finishing 2nd in Canada West with a 17-3 record, just behind the 18-2 Manitoba Bisons. The team was strong performances on both sides of the ball from Marisa Field and second-year Jen Hinze. They finished 2nd and 4th in Canada West in hitting percentage and 3rd and 4th in CW in blocks. They helped support league MVP Carla Bradstock who finished as a Canada West All-Star and CIS All-Canadian while also leading Canada West in assists.
In the playoffs, the Thunderbirds squared off with the Brandon Bobcats in a Best of 3 series, which they won 2-0 (3-2, 3-0). That sent them to Winnipeg and the 2008 Canada West Championship Semifinals against the Calgary Dinos. There the Thunderbirds would suffer heartbreak; after going up two sets to none on Calgary, they would lose the following three sets. They rebounded the following night, though, against the Bisons who had lost to Alberta. By beating the Bisons 3-2, the Thunderbirds booked a ticket to the 2008 National Championship.
In the National Championship, the Thunderbirds, as the fourth seed, squared off against the finalists from QSSF in Quebec, the Sherbrooke Vert & Or, winning 3-0. This sent UBC to a Friday night semi-final match against the Alberta Pandas (who had taken the Canada West title just days earlier). This time the Thunderbirds got to dole out some semi-final heartbreak, as the Pandas went up two sets to none before falling in three straight to send UBC to the 2008 National Championship Final.
In the final, the Thunderbirds squared off against the champions from Quebec, the Montreal Carabins. The Thunderbirds dispatched the Carabins in four sets and, in doing so, took home their first National Gold Medal since 1978. Carla Bradstock was named Tournament MVP, with Liz Cordonier and Jamie Broder joining her on the all-star team.
Following their first national title in 30 years, the UBC Thunderbirds were ready for an encore. They started slow, though, losing their first two matches to Alberta before rattling off seven straight wins. Overall, the Thunderbirds finished in a strong position in Canada West on the season at third with a 15-5 record. The main stars were Claire Hanna, named Libero of the Year, and Field, Hinze and Cordonier, named a first-team all-star and second-team all-stars, respectively.
The Thunderbirds entered the 2009 Canada West Playoffs on a high, winning their final five matches. They once again matched up with the Brandon Bobcats, who quickly dispatched again in their best-of-three quarterfinal. This sent them to the Final Four in Edmonton. After dispatching the Dinos in three sets in the semi-finals, the Thunderbirds squared off with the Trinity Western Spartans. It took five sets, but UBC pulled it out 3-2 to win the 2009 Canada West title.
At the 2009 National Championship, the Thunderbirds entered with the second slot. After a quick 3-1 quarterfinal win over AUS champs Moncton, they swept the QSSF finalists, the Laval Rouge et Or, to head back to the National Gold Medal game. The Calgary Dinos met them after they had upset #1 Montreal in the semi-finals. After a hard-fought five-set match, the Thunderbirds emerged victorious to claim their second consecutive national Gold medal. Kyla Richey was named tournament MVP and joined Marisa Field and Shanice Marcelle on the tournament All-Star team.
In their dynasty run, 2009-2010 was UBC’s perfect season. A 27-0 record all-encompassing and only losing 11 sets the entire season help encapsulate how perfect it was. The awards for UBC were plentiful. Claire Hanna repeated as Libero of the Year in Canada West and added Libero of the Year for CIS to start recognizing the team. Head Coach Doug Reimer was honoured as Canada West and CIS Coach of the Year for leading the Thunderbirds to (dating back to partway through the previous season) 40 consecutive regular-season wins. Liz Cordonier became the star though for the Thunderbirds, not only being named a first-team All-Star and All-Canada but finishing as Canada West MVP and CIS Player of the Year.
Their perfect 20-0 season afforded the Thunderbirds the chance to skip the Canada West quarterfinals and host the Canada West Final Four. In their semi-final matchup vs Regina , they picked up the 3-1 win giving them a shot at a second straight Canada West title. UBC squared off against #2 Manitoba in the Gold medal match and won the first two sets 25-17 each before losing the next two. In the fifth and deciding set, though, UBC pulled out the 15-8 win to take their second consecutive Canada West title.
Their Canada West win afforded the Thunderbirds top spot at the 2010 CIS Championship in Edmonton. The Thunderbirds made short work of their opposition in their run to the 2010 title. They waltzed past AUS Champion Saint Mary’s in three sets before doing the same to QSSF finalist Laval. The gold medal matchup featured a rematch between UBC and Manitoba. In the final, a three-headed attack of Cordonier, Marcelle and Richey combined for 42 kills and helped UBC to a 3-1 win and a third consecutive national title. Cordonier was rewarded with her turn as tournament MVP and having Marcelle and Hinze join her as tournament all-stars.
Following up their perfect season, the Thunderbirds could not keep up their run of absolute perfection, but the result was still the same. Two losses to the Spartans to open the season were a surprise, but the Thunderbirds from that point on went 15-1, including winning their final eleven games. It was new faces that stepped up to help UBC in 2010-2011. Second-year Jessica Von Schilling finished second in hitting percentage, while third-year setter Brina Derksen-Bergen finished third in Canada West in assists. It was Shanice Marcelle who ran the show, though, for the Thunderbirds. She finished in the top-ten in Hitting Percentage, Kills, Digs and Points and picked up First-Team All-Star and All-Canadian nominations along with Canada West and CIS Player of the Year trophies.
In the 2011 Canada West playoffs, their 15-3 record afforded another bye for the Thunderbirds into hosting the Canada West Final Four. In the Final Four, a 3-0 sweep of Manitoba set up a match with Trinity Western for the Canada West title. It took until overtime of the fifth set for UBC to eventually pull out the 17-15 win and take a third straight Canada West title.
Once again, UBC entered the CIS National Championship at Laval with the top spot. That gave them the easy afternoon quarterfinal matchup against Sherbrooke that they took 3-1. Set with a 6 pm tipoff on Saturday, March 5, 2012, the Thunderbirds didn’t take long, sweeping the Alberta Golden Bears in three sets to set up another CIS Gold Medal game. The gold medal match against the host Laval was an easy 3-0 sweep for the Thunderbirds, who added to their trophy case with another gold medal.
In 2011-2012, it was more of the same for the Thunderbirds in one way but a shock in another. An 18-2 season gave them an absolute stranglehold on first place in Canada West. This time, Kyla Richey ran the show, becoming yet another Thunderbird to win both Canada West and CIS Player of the Year. She led Canada West in kills and points while finishing with the seventh most service aces in the league. She was not alone, though, as Shanice Marcelle joined her as a First-Team All-Star and CIS All-Canadian.
With another bye in the 2012 Canada West Playoffs, the Thunderbirds hosted the Canada West Final Four yet again. They matched up with Trinity Western in the semi-finals and did quick work with a 3-0 sweep. That sent them to another Canada West Gold Medal Match against the Alberta Pandas. In the match, UBC took the first set, lost the next two and took the fourth to set up a fifth deciding set. After a back and forth battle, Alberta took the set 15-13, ending the Thunderbird’s streak of Canada West titles at three straight.
Following the team’s loss, Coach Reimer was straightforward in his assessment of the team’s first dissapointment in a whole, “Full marks to Alberta. Two games in a row they came to play and battled back when they had to,” said UBC coach Doug Reimer. “They got us out of rhythm a couple times and as a group they played really well. But having said that I was really impressed with our battle and fight. We didn’t come out on top of it though and have to make a couple adjustments for next week.”
Despite the loss, UBC still had a ticket booked for the CIS Championships in Hamilton. They seeded in second place behind Alberta and matched with the OUA Champion Queen’s Gaels in the quarterfinal. After sweeping Queen’s 3-0, they moved on to face RSEQ Champions Montreal in the semi-finals, which they took 3-1. This sent them to a fifth straight CIS Gold Medal game, a rematch of the Canada West title fight versus Alberta from nine days prior.
The Thunderbirds found themselves down 10-6 early in the gold medal match, but a 9-1 run helped them take the first set 25-21. The Pandas used 6-0 and 9-3 runs to start the second and third sets to take them 25-15 and 25-19. In set four, the Thunderbirds used a 10-3 run in the middle to go up 22-14 before finishing the set at 25-20. In the fifth and deciding set, it was 8-7 before UBC rattled off five straight points to take a stranglehold on a set they eventually won 15-12. For the tournament, second-year Lisa Barclay was named tournament MVP with 12 kills, five services aces and 1.5 blocks in three games.
In their dynasty run, UBC’s final national title came about as close to perfection as 2009-2010. After losing their second game of the season, the Thunderbirds rattled off 20 straight wins to finish on top of Canada West yet again with a 21-1 record. Thanks to that, it was unsurprising that yet another Thunderbird found herself taking hardware, with Shanice Marcelle picking up another set of Canada West and CIS Player of the Year trophies. She was not alone, though, with last season’s CIS Championship MVP Lisa Barclay earning first-team all-star honours and first-team all-Canadian honours. At the same time, Brina Derksen-Bergen once again found herself as a second-team all-star and this time a second-team all-Canadian as well.
In the 2013 Playoffs, it was yet another bye for UBC and yet another chance to host the Canada West Final Four. In the semi-final the Thunderbirds matched with the #5 seed Mount Royal Cougars, who had upset Alberta in the quarterfinal. They did quick work of MRU, which earned them a shot at taking back the Canada West title they had lost, this time against the Trinity Western Spartans. In a four-set affair, the Thunderbirds defeated the Spartans and got themselves their 15th Canada West Title.
That victory once again earned the top seed for the CIS Championships in Sherbrooke. They matched up with #8, the RSEQ Bronze medal winner Laval and swept them in three sets. That set up a semi-final rematch with Trinity Western that they once again took in four sets, earning them a shot at a sixth straight national title against their old friends, the Alberta Pandas. This time the result was never in doubt as the Thunderbirds took it in three sets (25-13, 25-23, 25-18). Lisa Barclay was named MVP for the second straight tournament and joined the all-star team with Shanice Marcelle and Brina Derksen-Bergen, who closed their Thunderbird careers with yet another title. For Derksen the title offered a moment to reflect on the journey as she said, “I just feel really special and I know that a lot of people contributed to this so I’m very grateful for everyone that helped me along the way.”
They couldn’t pull it off, but UBC came very close to a seventh straight title in 2014. On the season, things were business as usual. The Thunderbirds cruised to an 18-4 record and first place in Canada West yet again. This time the traditional winner of the Canada West and CIS Player of the Year award from UBC was Lisa Barclay, the fourth year finishing first in kills and points and 6th in service aces in Canada West.
In the 2014 Canada West playoffs, the first place finish meant yet another bye and yet another shot to host the Final Four. In the semi-final, the Thunderbirds faced a new challenger in their younger sibling campus, the UBCO Heat. A 3-1 win sent UBC back to the Canada West final for the seventh consecutive season. They squared off with the Manitoba Bisons and, in three sets, easily sealed up the 16th Canada West banner in school history and the fifth in seven years.
As usual, that meant the Thunderbirds were seeded first in the 2014 CIS National Championship. This gave them a Quarterfinal matchup against the host Regina Cougars which they took 3-1. They squared off with RSEQ champion Laval in the semi-finals and once again took the match 3-1, setting up a shot for a seventh consecutive national title in a rematch with Manitoba.
The final wasn’t easy; a back and forth first set saw the Bisons eventually pull it out 25-22. Things remained the same in the second set, as once the game was tied at 16 each at the technical timeout, it remained tied all the way to 22-22. The Bisons scored the following three points, though, to go up two sets to none. With the Thunderbird’sThunderbird’s backs against the wall, they fell behind in the third set ad were never able to catch up. Eventually, the Bisons took it 25-20, and for the first time in their magical run, UBC had to settle for silver.
Head Coach Doug Reimer was able to reflect on the teams just missed chance at history post-game.
“For this group, given the turnover we had from last year, my expectation is that one year ago there were a lot teams that thought we wouldn’t get back to this position so I want to give our group credit for what they have done through the year and in the last couple of weeks to give themselves a chance here,” said Reimer. “However, it doesn’t take away from the disappointment of not playing our best here today.”
What happened after the run?
The Thunderbirds did not fade from dominance after 2014, but it was clear the country-controlling magic was not there as much. They had to fight to see more success, but success still did come. The following season a Canada West bronze medal got them back for another CIS Championship, but they ended it in 6th place. The next year it was the same; another bronze got them back to the Championships, where they ended up in fourth.
The National Championship trophy case still has been added to since the Thunderbirds run of domination, with a 2017 Gold over Alberta at Ryerson University, and then a 2019 Gold over Ryerson at the University of Alberta, adding to the historical legacy of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds Women’sWomen’s Volleyball Program.
Most of the last 20 years of the Thunderbirds program can be looked at as unique, but between 2008 to 2014, they were essentially unbeatable.