HALIFAX, NS – Lately, AUS women’s volleyball has been whatever the Dalhousie Tigers have wanted it to be. Their conference dominance has extended over the past eight seasons and they won’t be any easier to play this year.
But as we’ve seen in other sports, the long break induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has occasionally flipped leagues upside down or at the very least, sprinkled some parity into the mix.
In particular, many have their eyes on the Saint Mary’s Huskies following their undefeated season with a healthy returning roster. The 2019 finalists even took a pair of first-place votes in the AUS women’s volleyball preseason coaches’ poll of who would finish where in 2021-22.
The coaches seem to agree the Halifax teams plus the Acadia Axewomen will make up the upper tier of the league. But UNB finished exactly where Acadia did (with 12-8 records and semifinal losses) in 2019-20. The Universite de Monton Aigles Bleues have a new coach and several lineup changes. And the Memorial Sea-Hawks, who went winless last season, get a fresh start with many newcomers and zero fourth or fifth-year student-athletes.
If the preseason and other U SPORTS action around the country have been any indicator, we should be in store for a much more competitive, tight season in the AUS.
The Axewomen fought with SMU and UNB for second place in the conference in 2019-20 and they will need a big season this time around to do the same. But like many of their opponents, head coach Michelle Wood’s roster is almost entirely brand new. In fact, they have just a single player in their third year of eligibility and up.
That student-athlete is fourth-year outside hitter Taylor Collombin. She finished 11th in the 2019-20 AUS season with 2.5 points per set and eighth in total kills with 134. The leader in both those categories, teammate Lucy Glen-Carter, is one of the several graduated players from last season’s team. But Acadia will get back this year what many teams won’t: starting setter Sydney Zakutney and libero Rebecca Dorsey. Other players to watch include York transfer middle blocker Wesley-Ann Bailey and second-year hitters Kate Kramer and Emilie Albert.
It’s difficult to challenge the Tigers for the conference crown and it will be equally hard this year. Having lost just five times within the conference in the last four seasons, Dal will also have among the largest returning groups in the league. While head coach Rick Scott will have to evaluate newcomers at multiple key positions, Dal is in as good of a position as ever to chase their ninth straight title.
Dal’s attacking corps will be mostly retained from 2019-20, with the return of outside hitters Sarah Dawe, Victoria Turcot and Julie Moore. Moore finished second in the AUS with 268 points and 225 kills in 2019-20. The biggest change for Dal will come at the setter position with three-time reigning AUS MVP Cortney Baker having graduated. Brett Boldon, Anika Almero and Isabella Noble will challenge for that spot this year. Sydney Thompson and Alessandra Nadalini will do the same at libero with 2019-20 starter Catherine Callaghan now moved on.
Since last making the playoffs in 2018, the Sea-Hawks have had a hard time finding their way back there. They’ve won just one game in the last two regular seasons. But those are the growing pains that head coach John Slauenwhite’s squad will have to endure as competition will remain stiff in 2021-22. They’ll need to find a way to utilize their squad of around 20 players to rack up some wins.
The MUN offence will be powered by outside hitter Alyssa Warford, who led the team in points and was seventh in the AUS in kills in 2019-20. The Sea-Hawks lose key pieces at the net like blocking specialist Catherine Smith and team service ace leader Kaitlyn Kuckinka. Last season, they juggled Julia Bartlett, Margaret Henley and Erica Rafuse in the setter position. The latter two are back, with Jenna Poole competing for the position as well. Libero Katie Wagar is no longer around after leading the league with 377 digs last season.
Moncton Aigles Bleues
The Aigles Bleues, like Memorial, fell well short of a playoff spot in 2019-20 and aspire to make it back in for the first time since 2017. They will need to jump one of Acadia or UNB to make it in most likely, so they would have to put together an impressive season. With first-year head coach Joline Richard debuting, it will be interesting to see how the veteran/youth mix in the roster will be utilized.
The pillars of UdeM’s attack are middle blockers Ivana Urquhart and Joanie Arsenault, who finished last season with 164 and 153.5 points respectively. Cassidy Martin, the best server in the conference as a rookie in 2019-20, is back. The setter had 46 aces last season. Outside those core three, Moncton will welcome new faces like hitter Sara Chiasson, who’s carried a lot of preseason offence, and libero Telia Gaudet.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
Many see this season as a turning point for a Huskies team that’s been on the cusp of a title for a few years. With a 6-0 preseason record—including a straight-set victory over Dal—there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. Now, head coach Darren Russell will look to guide his team through the regular season grind on their mission to take the next step toward a title.
For SMU, it starts with the return of their dynamic middle duo of Olivia Bell and Bethany Smith. The 2019-20 AUS all-stars each placed top ten in kills, points and total blocks. Fellow all-star Renee Cleveland is also a part of that leadership group. Her 324 digs in 2019-20 were good enough for second in the conference. There will be a changing of the guard at setter with Emila Conlon moved on. So far, third-year Jakobie Friesen is the frontrunner to take over at the position.
The Reds will be on a mission to separate themselves on the right side of their annual dogfight with Acadia and SMU in the standings. It was a bumpier preseason than they would have liked, but they have shown recently they can match up against the better teams just fine. Head coach Richard Schick will be tasked with keeping that positive trend going through the season.
UNB will be a different-looking team at the net. Their top three scorers from 2019-20—Adora Rooyakkers, Robyn Anderson and first-team all-star Victoria Eadle—are no longer on the team. Rookie Lydia Green looks to be making an impact finishing points so far, as do returnees Kristen Burns and Madeline Mills. Paige Lehto has the setter job following an excellent 2019-20 campaign. For the digs, Kelsie Dukart returns at libero and will be depended on as a leader within the young starting lineup.