Video Spotlight - MVB - Spartans vs. Bears

LANGLEY, British Columbia - All it took was four strides, one gargantuan leap and one powerful right arm swing and the Trinity Western men’s volleyball team had finally slayed the Golden Bear. And they had themselves a rivalry.

With the score 24-16 in favour of Trinity Western in the third set of the 2006 CIS national championship gold medal match, all the Spartans needed was one point to secure what would be their first ever Canadian crown and in doing so would beat the University of Alberta for the just the second time in their history.

The Spartans had taken the first two sets, 25-21 and, remarkably, 25-8, so with an eight-point cushion at match point, it was little more than a matter of time before Trinity Western would be hoisting Tantramar Trophy. But when Jeff Stel, the Spartans lone home-grown boy from Langley, B.C., took his four strides, leaped from his left side position and put all 185 pounds of his 6-foot-4 frame into his final kill shot of the night, there was no way he was letting the celebration wait any longer. The ball rocketed cross court, ricocheted off the awaiting-but-not-up-to-the-challenge hands of Alberta libero Justin Wong, flew into the stands opposite Stel and the Spartans had finally won the game that mattered.

That day nobody expected the Spartans to win. Alberta had beaten the Spartans five times, including the regular season and playoffs, that year and in those five wins, the Golden Bears had taken four in three sets.

“That team (Alberta) put on the floor was the most talented team I have ever seen,” said Spartans coach Ben Josephson, who was an assistant under Ron Pike in 2006. “We just happened to catch the perfect night on the right night. We played beyond our abilities that day and it was a really special day.”

Alberta coach Terry Danyluk, who has been the Bears head coach since 1991, added: “It was a match where everything in the world that could possibly go one way, went one way. I mean we were getting hit on the head. Their desire was so strong. They played extremely well and it was a situation where we had nothing in response to that.”

In particular, on this day, nothing in response to a one Chris Meehan, especially in the second set.

“Around here we call it the run,” Josephson said.

With the score 5-2 for Trinity Western in the second set, Meehan went to the line for what proved to be the match’s turning point.

Bombing serve after serve, sprinkled in with one change-up, Meehan was at the line for nine straight serves, giving the Spartans a 13-2 advantage and an entirely dominant grasp of the game’s momentum.

“You know I had played with Chris before and after that but I never saw him do something that,” said former Bear Dallas Soonias who was on the court that day and now plays professionally with the Hyundai Capitol Sky Walkers in the South Korean V League. “I think it was a combo of our reception being more than a little shaky that day, but also him finally throwing caution to the wind and letting himself just do the darn thing. I've played with and against the best in the world and on that day, I feel he was right there with them.”

As the TSN broadcaster went on to say, “Trinity Western [was] like a freight train and Chris Meehan [was] the conductor.”

And so the rivalry between Trinity Western and Alberta officially began.

Prior to the 2006 final, the Spartans had been getting close – losing to the Bears in the national championship gold medal game in 2005 in an epic five-setter that went beyond 25 points in each of the first three sets – but the gold medal win in Hamilton, Ont. gave the Spartans their first piece of the pie.

“We always used to be little brother,” said Josephson, who was the Spartans setter from 1998 to 2003. “It felt like that when I was playing and still felt that way until we finally started to beat those guys.”
Since then, the rivalry has only heated up.

Not a game goes by between these two programs – both of whom can be considered amongst the very best, if not the best, in Canada – In which the intensity doesn’t hit the high octaves.

And for a pair of programs, who at times recruit in each other’s backyards and, for the past several years, who have played each other in a preseason tour to the Okanagan, it only makes them better.

“It’s Jordan versus Bird,” Josephson said. “Larry Bird and Michael Jordan went at it in the 80’s for all those years and they made each other better. They raise their games to play each other and I feel that’s how the Bears and Spartans rivalry has gone. When we see that they have a great team, we know that we have our work cut out for us all season long and I know they’re the same way.”

Over the years, Alberta and Trinity Western have officially locked horns 52 times, with Alberta winning on 42 occasions. But since that win in 2006, the Spartans have started to claw their way back. At one time the Bears figured Trinity Western to be just another opponent to beat up on. Now, as Josephson says, “Maybe it’s more like twins fighting over the same piece of the pie rather than the little brother just getting the scraps.”

The year after the Spartans won the national title, Trinity Western beat Alberta twice in a season for the first time in its history, but in the end, as had been the case for so many years, it was the Bears getting the last laugh as they ended the Spartans back-to-back title hopes in a five-set semifinal.

That only fostered the Spartans very much respectful dislike for the yellow and green.

“It was fairly heated,” said Josh Howatson, who graduated in 2006 and is currently playing professionally for Paris Volley in France’s Pro League but still follows the Spartans closely as both his alma mater and the team his brother Marc currently plays with. “We didn’t really enjoy each other. The personalities of our teams were very different and the other problem was they beat us every time we played them. That wasn’t so good. We knew that that they were great players but we didn’t like losing to them. You can have respect for people and still dislike losing to them.”

After the 2006-07 season, the Spartans regressed in terms of success against the Bears. For three years, other than one win in a preseason game, Trinity Western lost every match they played against Alberta.

But as the 2009-10 version of the Spartans rose back to national prominence, the tide started to turn towards the West Coast.

While the Spartans did lose to the Bears in the 2010 Canada West gold medal match – a five-set classic in which Trinity Western was forced to fight back from a 2-0 deficit – they would go onto win a silver medal at the CIS national championship, and with that, one bettered Alberta for the first time since 2006, as the Bears settled for bronze.

That silver medal ultimately launched the Spartans championship drive in 2010-11, one that would culminate in the program’s second national championship.

It was also in that year, for the first time in their history, that the Spartans won the season series, 4-2, but not before a four-set win over Alberta in the Canada West bronze medal game and a five-set win – yet another of the crazy variety – in the national championship quarter-final.

Playing in front of nearly 2,000 Trinity Western fans at the Langley Events Centre in the national tournament, the Spartans and Bears did battle for five grueling sets but in the end, the blue and yellow survived, winning the final game 15-11.

“I thought that was the toughest match I have ever coached as a head coach,” Josephson said. “I felt sick all week because I knew how great they were and I felt sick all match because we were just hanging on and every game was tight. That night was a real special memory that I will remember forever as a coach.”

And with that another chapter in the rivalry, or whatever one would like to call it, was closed. But only with the next chapter right behind it, ready to be written.

“The programs have a mutual respect for one another,” Danyluk said. “I think that’s what I would call it rather than a rivalry.  I think the two programs, along with a couple of others in the country, have gained a certain respect for each other.  

“They’ve done more than push us. It’s been a really good process. It’s one of those things where I know every time we play against Trinity, they’re going to be an awesome team. As a coach you look forward to games like these knowing that every time we play them, it seems to matter.”

Brock Davidiuk, the Bears setter in both 2005 and 2006 and current assistant coach agreed:  “We definitely hated those guys when we stepped on the court but once you stepped off the court, we had respect for them.”

Fifty-two games, including eight matches in the playoffs over the last eight years, will do exactly that. While it’s certainly been heated over the years, and a sizable dislike definitely portioned out each way, with so many players knowing each other from a variety of club, provincial or national teams, that mutual respect is obvious.

To a degree.

“I think it’s a healthy rivalry,” Josephson said. “There’s definitely not camaraderie when we play. It’s a battle between two very proud programs with proud athletes. When we lineup on the court, there is no loved lost.

“But these guys played provincial teams together and we have recruited Alberta kids. Lots of them played with the national team together and many of them are good buddies. Away from the court, there are pretty good relationships there but on the court it’s a war and there’s no room for friendship.”

And for the first time since Feb. 9, 2008, when the Bears pounded the Spartans 3-0 (25-20, 25-21. 25-17), that war will be waged inside the David E. Enarson Gymnasium on Trinity Western’s campus. With a capacity of 500 and a full house of raucous Spartan Faithful anticipated, one can bet it’s going to be just like the old days when paint was the requirement and a hoarse throat was the side effect.  While the only current players from either side to have played in that match were Trinity Western’s Rudy Verhoeff, Ben Ball and Marc Howatson, the Bears of old remember it.

Fondly or not so fondly.

“It can be frustrating for the opposition but that’s what the fans are supposed to do,” Davidiuk said. “That’s what the fans in Europe are like. They’re so intense and so loud and I think we can use more of that in Canada. That verboseness from their fans is an exciting environment to play in. I’m looking forward to that and seeing how our guys will handle it.

“When a school has a separate entity that glues all of them together that spirit really comes out in their fans.”

Soonias, who had his fair share of Enarson experiences, albeit having never lost there himself while with Alberta, took it a step further when discussing the Enarson packed with the Spartan Faithful.

“I'm not a terribly religious guy, but I do remember feeling envious that regardless of what there is in this world in terms of a higher being, the TWU players always felt God had their back, or at least that’s what I gathered,” Soonias said. “Like when soldiers go to war, when they truly feel they have God with them they will fight differently than a soldier who only has himself. Faith and hope can give a person or a team so much.  So that's something I respected: their faith.”

In front of that tight-knit crowd, the Spartans, who enter the weekend with a 10-0 record in conference play while the Bears are 8-2, will be in search of just their second win over Alberta ever in the Enarson.
The only other win came on Jan. 10, 2004 when they beat the Bears 3-2 (23-25, 23-25, 25-22, 29-27, 18-16).

While Josephson says the low-roofed building will actually likely favour the Bears hard serving style, neither he nor his starting setter, Ball, would trade the home crowd for any amount of height.    

“It’s going to be awesome,” Ball said. “No matter what, it’s going to be loud in there because it doesn’t take much in that gym. Playing there for two years was a ton of fun so it’s going to be awesome going back.”

And going back is exactly what makes sense this weekend.

The Bears and Spartans rivalry has gone back for many years now and while the Spartans may have knocked off Alberta in recent times – the Spartans have won five of their last six meetings – as 2006 proved, on any given night anyone can win.

And in this rivalry, the only thing one can really guarantee is, there will be greatness.

-TW-

Last Updated: 2012-01-13
Author: Mark Janzen