Volleyball season preview

Storylines to watch for in the 2023-24 season

As the 2023-24 CanWest conference volleyball season dawns this weekend, both the women’s and men’s teams will look to show they are forces to be reckoned with. A new year means new opportunity, and it is certainly there for the taking.

The women’s team opens its season with a two-game series against the University of Regina Cougars at Investors Group Athletic Centre on Friday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m., while the men’s season begins a week later in Abbotsford, B.C. against the University of the Fraser Valley Cascades on Friday, Oct. 27 at 6 p.m.

With the season openers set, here are some storylines to watch for.

Women’s team

Coming off a fourth-place finish at the U Sports Championships last season, expectations for the 2023-24 rendition of the University of Manitoba women’s volleyball team are very high. And rightly so, as the team returns its entire starting lineup from the bronze-medal match against the Dalhousie University Tigers last March.

For the 38th season in a row, the Bisons will be guided by sturdy head coach Ken Bentley. The six-time national champion and 1,000-plus game winner will be looking to add a seventh national championship to his already illustrious resume. This may be the team to do it.

In the 2022-23 season, the Bisons finished sixth in CanWest with a 14-10 record, which saw the team finish one spot below rival University of Winnipeg Wesmen, despite beating them in last year’s CanWest bronze-medal match.

Setter Katreena Bentley is coming off a season in which she dished out 1,115 assists and made 210 digs. She has a soft touch and runs an effective offence, though her height does affect her net play at times. Nonetheless, her volleyball mind is deft and Bisons fans can rest assured knowing she will be orchestrating the team.

Surrey, B.C. native Ella Gray is another key player that the Bisons will lean on this season. Along with Raya Surinx, Gray represented Team Canada this summer in the 2023 U23 (under 23) Women’s North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation Pan American Cup in Hermosillo, Mexico. In two seasons with the Bisons thus far, Gray has amassed 434 kills.

The centrepiece of this Bisons team, however, is none other than reigning U Sports rookie of the year Surinx. In her rookie season, Surinx accumulated a whopping 417 kills. The six-foot Surinx is blessed with an elastic arm and thunderously heavy swing, amounting to a lethal spin-serve. She will be set whenever the Bisons need a side-out or when Bentley wants to get a sure point.

Men’s team

The men’s team will look to improve from last year’s disappointing eighth-place finish in CanWest, which saw it dispatched in two games by the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the first round of the playoffs.

The team will be coached by Arnd (Lupo) Ludwig, who is entering his fourth season as head coach. Thus far, coach Ludwig has led the herd to a record of 16-26 in CanWest play.

On the court, the team will be led by Spencer Grahame who was recently named team captain. Grahame enters his third year with the Bisons fresh off an appearance for Team Canada at the 2023 Fédération Internationale de Volleyball Men’s U21 World Championships that took place from July 7 to 16 in Manama, Bahrain.

Fellow representative of the Canadian team this summer, libero Josh Jehle will look to cement himself as a starter. The St. Andrews, Man. native averaged 1.46 digs per set last season.

After the departure of Jack Mandryk — Mandryk having completed his last year of eligibility with the team last season — who finished in the top 20 for career assists in CanWest history, setter Sammy Ludwig will have some big shoes to fill. Nonetheless, the young Ludwig seems poised to take the reins of this Bison team after winning bronze with Team Canada and fellow Bison Jonah Dueck at the North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation U-21 Pan American Cup.