Jarron Mueller, Cougars Athletics & Recreation
It was a special year for Mount Royal University, whose brand was in the Canadian sports spotlight last week. A group of 14 student-athletes have had an historic season, which culminated last weekend as they represented MRU on the U SPORTS (governing body of university sport in Canada) national stage.
The Cougars men's volleyball team are the first in athletics history to attend a U SPORTS National Championship.
It's been a grind for MRU to earn their spot, and many times in the past seven years the Cougars have taken the back seat to other "big fish" schools. But not this year. The weekend's experience provided Mount Royal with an all-new level of exposure, as the event had approximately 6,000 spectators and tens of thousands of hits on social media.
Moving up the ranks
Following MRU's transition from a college to a university in 2010, the Cougars entered U SPORTS competition in 2012. Mount Royal was a powerhouse in the collegiate realm, dominating the Alberta Collegiate Athletics Conference (ACAC) for decades. As all schools do, they struggled to jump into the highest level of post secondary sport in the nation. But the men's volleyball team only took seven years to reach Canada's premier competition.
"From a highly successful ACAC team to Canada West, we knew it was going to be a challenge," says Head Coach Shawn Sky, who is in his 15th season with MRU. "It's been seven years of a lot of learning, but we have been fortunate enough to make the playoffs three times."
It has been a process to learn what it takes to win in this league, and while to some seven years may seem like a long time, in the sports world reaching the national spotlight so quickly is impressive.
What it takes to win
Let's dive deeper into the character of the Mount Royal student-athletes who earned this incredible opportunity. The Cougars volleyball team is comprised of students from five different academic programs. Everyday they walk Main Street — going to classes and grabbing a meal at Wykham, maybe a drink at Tim Hortons — just like any other MRU student. But the difference is that they also make extra trips to recreation facility for training every day of the week.
Quinn Bromley, one of the fifth-year leaders on the team, explained that "throughout the week, it is just school and volleyball. You have to really put some of your relationships on hold during the season and miss those high school friend ski weekends and other get-togethers to pursue high-level volleyball and a degree."
A business student with a double major in general management and accounting (concentration in financial analysis), Quinn also shed light on how the student-athlete experience has developed essential skills. "Having workouts and practices during the day really makes you build and maintain your daily schedule. It forces you to be efficient with your time and study during your breaks."
Between August and March, the men's volleyball team competes in over 40 games, take 15 road trips, attend over 175 practices, completes 150 hours of workouts, and reviews 90 hours of video. Not to be forgotten are the individual training sessions and visits to the clinic in Wellness Services for treatment. It all adds up to approximately 24 hours for an average week, not including the extra time it takes when the team travels for away games. In student language, It's the equivalent of taking about six extra classes each semester. What about things like laundry, groceries, and a social life, you ask? Maybe they will get to that if they have time after their school assignments are complete.
Student-athletes are also required to maintain minimum GPA to remain eligible to play, so school comes first.
Another key component to all Cougars teams is the Mount Royal athletic therapy students. These therapists have been through thick and thin with their assigned team and have become an essential part of the program, helping the student-athletes keep their bodies in performance shape.
On the men's volleyball team there are two student athletic therapists who have been with the team all year. Fourth-year Sam Pasquino explains, "Over the past two semesters I have spent around 350 hours with the team at practices and games." That doesn't even include the hours in the clinic when athletes are injured. Sam also points out, "From the very beginning, I was able to see their efforts firsthand in preseason, and the hard work and dedication has paid off. I am very proud of this team."
The road to nationals
The men's volleyball team's journey started with a record-breaking regular season 15-7 record, and an exciting Canada West quarter-final series win, followed by a tough loss in the conference semifinals for a third-place finish. The best result in program history doubled as a qualifier for the U SPORTS National Championships in Quebec City at Laval University. The team was ranked fourth going into the tournament out of the eight teams from across Canada. Competing for school pride and national glory were two RSEQ (Quebec Student Sport Federation) teams: Laval and Montreal; two OUA (Ontario University Athletics) teams: Queens and McMaster; and four Canada West teams: University of Alberta, Brandon University, Trinity Western University and Mount Royal University.
Every other program in the tournament had experienced nationals multiple times.
The team arrived in Quebec City after a full day of travel on March 12. The days leading up to game day included three practices, countless hours of video scouting, team meetings, finding time in-between to study (school does not stop on the road) and support from the athletic therapists for their worn-down bodies.
The day before the quarter-final game, third-year science student and Academic All-Canadian Tyrone Moline said, "I have a test today actually, but I'll be able to do it online after our morning banquet. I have just been trying to catch up on what I will miss. Next week is really busy, I have four midterms right when we get back and two assignments due."
The day before the tournament began, U SPORTS held an awards banquet. Sweatpants and hoodies were packed away as the teams dressed up to see who received individual honours. Cougars fifth-year Tyler Schmidt was named a first team U SPORTS All-Star, meaning he is among the top six players in the entire league. However, this is just another accolade for the humble fifth-year.
"Honoured to get the award, but I think we need to just keep focusing on our quarter-final tomorrow, that is more important than these awards," says the soon-to-be 2019 Bachelor of Business Administration graduate. This season Schmidt became the all-time leader in points and kills in Canada West making him one of the best players in the history of the league.
Business freshman Luis Lange also made a splash at the banquet, being named to the U SPORTS All-Rookie team. "It's pretty humbling to be able to experience a national championship in my first year and I thank the guys for introducing me to this program," he says.
Next it was competition time, and the Cougars were first matched up against provincial rival, the University of Alberta Golden Bears, who were participating in their 19th straight national championships. While Mount Royal was stronger, more consistent, and ranked higher nationally, the Cougars fell just short of the more experienced Golden Bears in the quarter-final matchup. The next day in the consolation semifinal against University of Montreal, MRU responded in top form with their first ever championship tournament win. This led them into the fifth place match against Queens, but unfortunately the Cougars were unable to top the Gaels.
This finish gave your MRU men's volleyball team a sixth overall ranking in Canada for the 2018-19 season.
"I've watched the student-athletes and coaches dedicate themselves in the classroom and on their respective playing fields with an incredible focus and desire to reach the next level," says Karla Karch, Director of Cougars Athletics and Recreation. "This year our men's volleyball program took the biggest leap forward by qualifying for the national championships."
"It was a proud moment for MRU and Cougars Athletics and Recreation to watch these (student) athletes compete with the very best from across the country. While we may not have walked away with a medal, the experience of competing will live with them and be part of the foundation they are building for men's volleyball at Mount Royal."
This incredible journey is just a start for MRU as the Cougars have now earned their space in the national sports conversation. With pride, determination and focus, the Cougars will be back in the fall of 2019.