According to head coach Paul Hunt, the past two years there was trouble establishing the program, but “now the program’s out there, kids are seeing it and they want to come to King’s.”
He added that recruits come for education first, but being able to combine playing volleyball with getting an education plays a role in the recruiting process.
“This year, we had eight recruits and one walk-on to give us nine new bodies – which was great,” Hunt said. “Now we have the numbers and now we’re ready to move forward.”
Leah Lowe-Davies, team captain, said the program was a lot weaker when she started – which made sense because the women were all new to each other and the team struggled to find players.
“When I first came in, I don’t even think we had twelve (players) – maybe ten – and there were some girls who hadn’t really played at a high level before.”
Despite their competitiveness, the struggles showed in the win-loss columns, as the team didn’t win a game in its inaugural season.
“The first year was very much a building year,” she said. “The second year was a lot more successful.”
Last season, the team finished sixth out of eight teams – improving to a 6-15 record – and just clinched the last playoff spot. However, when the injury bug bit down the stretch of the season, the lack of players hurt the team.
That’s why this year’s recruiting class really jump-started the program. Not only setting the team up well for the season ahead but for years to come, with both personnel and talent.
According to Lowe-Davies, in the previous two years, there were greater disparities in ability that allowed players to cement themselves early on and not have to worry about their spot being taken.
That isn’t the case anymore.
“I think the new girls coming in have helped bring the level up and I’d say there’s much more competition for court time nowadays,” she said.
“Now, we don’t even know who our starting six is going to be most of the time, just because there’s so much competition in the gym. But that breeds for success, so I like it.”
Lowe-Davies also spoke highly about the way the first-years have integrated into the team and their attitudes coming in.
“I feel like, sometimes, rookies come in and don’t understand the level and what you need to do to be a varsity athlete, but they’ve been pretty good. All of them have really tried to be at all the practices and go to team things.”
To be a varsity athlete, there’s a certain level of dedication that you have to maintain. Often, it’s a juggle between school, athletics and a social life, with the first two taking priority. If they don’t, then consequences can occur.
For example, if your grades drop below a certain level, then you’ll get an academic suspension, which means you can’t play sports until your GPA improves. Or if you aren’t performing well on the court because you’re doing other things, you might get put lower on the depth chart.
The fact that dedication hasn’t been an issue will pay dividends for the program moving forward.
Although the program only has two years to look back on, it has improved each year. Going from winless, to 6-15 and making the playoffs, to starting 1-2 – including a tough five-set loss against St. Thomas University on Saturday – and having the expectation to make playoffs.
“The league is tough,” Hunt said. “It’s an eight-team league; you could finish eighth – and have a good season – and miss the playoffs, because the league is that tight.”
There’s a rule in the Atlantic Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA) that says the team hosting playoffs gets an automatic bid into the tournament, regardless of their standing in the regular season.
According to Lowe-Davies, the league’s worst team is hosting playoffs this year, which means the Blue Devils will likely have to finish at least fifth in the standings to make playoffs again.
Regardless, now that the personnel is no longer an issue, the weight of leading this team to the playoffs falls mostly on the veteran players.
Hunt listed four returning players in particular – Leah Lowe-Davies, Jane Heeney, Sophia Josenhans and Marianna Saunders – that he expects to be leaders.
“They carry the girls at practice, they keep them up, they send encouragement to them,” he said.
Lowe-Davies agreed with her coach, saying Heeney was a solid all-around player, Josenhans is “very dynamic” and Saunders does the dirty work and is a great communicator.
She added that, in terms of mentoring, they’re mostly just trying to lead by example on the court.
Lowe-Davies also expects recruits Megan Gosse, Alex Jackson (a fourth-year with experience), Kirstin Conrad, Isabelle Roach and walk-on, Taryn Neufeld, to be factors as well.
She underlined the acquisition of Roach – a setter (basically the quarterback position of volleyball) – because now the team can run a “proper offense”.
“She’s going to bring the ability to run a more dynamic and varied offense,” Lowe-Davies said. “I think it’s also the split-second decision making, because when you set, you don’t have that much time to think about it and you are controlling the entire court.”
The team will look to improve their record when they visit Holland College Nov. 19-20 for another back-to-back.
She had been considering going to Dalhousie University for school.
“(King’s) wasn’t really on my radar”, because she didn’t know much about the volleyball program and she knew it was an arts school, whereas she was more of a science student.
However, after sitting down with coaches and Neil Hooper, the university’s athletic director, learning that she could do a bachelor of science and that academics come first here, Roach was sold.
She says making the transition has been easy, due in large part to the girls around her.
“There’s no division among upper-years and first-years,” she said. “As cheesy as it sounds, we’re really like a family.”
Roach added that everyone is very supportive of one another when on the court and thinks the team can be very successful this season.
“We can hit top four for sure, if not higher.”
After having the big recruiting class this year and, hopefully, achieving the success they’re aiming for, she thinks the draw for the program will grow.
“I think (girls from local) club teams or those looking at (Atlantic University Sport) schools will start to look here as an option,” Roach said.
She added that getting the same benefits as Dalhousie, great academics and word of mouth will help too.
Lowe-Davies thinks this year’s rookie class was positive for the future of the program.
“Right now, we don’t have too many girls who will be graduating out, and I think having a big rookie class establishes a good level for the next three or four years – or however long they’re going to stay. So I like it.”
She added that, with this big recruiting class, interest to come to King’s is growing.
“King’s is a really good academic school, so why wouldn’t you come to a really good academic school, if it also has a good team?”
Regardless of how the program gets recognition, Hunt ultimately knows there’s a bigger picture at play.
“I was always told: ‘It’s not how you found a program, it’s how you leave it’,” he said.
“If you leave it in good shape – not talking about wins and losses, I’m talking about bodies, here. The girls are competitive – they compete well, they practice well. That’s what you want to do and I think the program is moving in that direction, now.”
“No matter who’s here coaching, this team should be ready to roll, to move forward into the future.”