The preseason is never a perfect judge of a team's abilities, but TRU WolfPack setter Colin Carson feels he witnessed something special over the past few weeks.
Carson will lead the WolfPack into the Canada West men's volleyball season tonight, when the UBC-Okanagan Heat visits the Tournament Capital Centre. Start time is 6:45.
As one of two players who have been with the WolfPack the last three seasons, Carson is as much an expert as anyone. And he sees a big difference between this TRU team and the 2011-12 edition, which went 3-17 and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years.
"I don't think we're going to give up," said Carson, a 21-year-old Prince George native. "You don't want to say the team gave up in the past, but last season, there were times when we were down and you could tell we weren't going to fight back.
"Especially in preseason, we showed that if we're down, or things weren't going our way, we're going to fight back and compete."
Despite finishing dead last in the conference last season, the WolfPack goes into the regular season with a healthy dose of confidence, likely the result of last weekend's Thunderball Tournament at UBC in Vancouver. TRU finished first, winning three five-set matches and beating two nationally ranked teams - the Manitoba Bisons (5) and host Thunderbirds (9) - in the process.
Winning the tournament wasn't as important to the WolfPack as learning to succeed in fifth sets.
"We lost six five-setters during the (2011-12) regular season; we win half of those and it's a whole different year," said WolfPack head coach Pat Hennelly. "I'm pretty confident with this team, and I do like our depth."
TRU has 11 players off last season's roster, but still boasts a lineup short on experience.
Carrying the offensive load will be a bunch of third-year players - outside hitters Stuart Richey, Casey Knight, Jesse Bazergui and California transfer Hardy Wooldridge - as well as second-year middle Mohamed Abdel Rehim and outside Brad Gunter.
"We've shown we're competitive. We should be competitive," Hennelly said. "Between 10th and fourth (in the conference), I think we're capable of all of those, quite realistically.
"That said, last year, I thought we had some decent talent and decent ability and had a decent preseason, so that was disappointing."
And that disappointment hasn't gone away. No sir, not even a little bit.
Hennelly and TRU knew it was going to be a rebuilding season, but didn't expect to fall so far. After all, this is a program that had made the playoffs for five straight seasons and had three top-six finishes at CIS championships between 2008 and 2010.
It was pretty apparent that Hennelly was going to carry the disappointment over missing the playoffs into the offseason, but he was relatively pleased that all of his players did as well.
"There was a bad taste in my mouth after last season . . . and I think our guys' training after the season reflected that and paying the price over the summer reflected that," he said. "I think we're prepared mentally to prove that we're not the last-place team in the conference."
The players had the same thing in mind as their coach.
"We're definitely determined to climb back up," said Gunter, a 6-foot-5 sciences student from Courtenay.
"I got a bitter taste in my mouth from losing, and I don't want to experience that again," Carson agreed.
As has been his strength throughout the years, Hennelly has dug into Europe to fill out his roster.
Among the new players are Daniel Eikeland Rod, a 6-foot-5 middle from Norway, and Philip Ozari, a 6-foot-4 outside from Denmark.
The new faces have had the right approach so far, Hennelly said.
"Philip . . . doesn't really know who Trinity Western is, who Manitoba is, or UBC. He doesn't have any experience with them, and that's a positive thing," Hennelly said. "He's going out and playing hard every match, he doesn't have a whole built-up process of who's who and who's supposed to be the best.
"And that's how I think everybody should enter a match - play your hardest and see where the chips may fall."
SIDE OUTS: The WolfPack was ranked 10th among 12 Canada West teams in the preseason coaches' poll. . . . The Trinity Western Spartans were No. 1, although the Alberta Golden Bears, whom the Canada West coaches ranked No. 2, are the CIS's top-ranked team. . . . TRU and UBC-O will play Saturday in Kelowna, and the WolfPack will play the Bobcats in Brandon on Nov. 2-3. . . . With the Mount Royal Cougars moving up to the CIS from the Alberta college ranks, each Canada West team will play 22 matches, two against each other conference opponent.
Coaches: Pat Hennelly (head coach, seventh year); Chad Grimm (assistant, sixth year); Behlul Yavasgel (assistant, third year); Robin Schoebel (assistant, third year); Mike Hawkins (assistant, first year); Jennifer Joyce (strength/conditioning, third year).
Last season: 3-17 (missed playoffs).
Key returning players: S Colin Carson (fourth year, Prince George); OH Brad Gunter (second year, Courtenay); L Spencer Reed (fourth year, Prince George).
Key departures: S Mike Hawkins (graduation); OH Aleks Saddlemyer (graduation); M Alex Davis.
Key additions: OH Hardy Wooldridge (Mission Viejo, Calif.; Orange Coast College); OH Philip Ozari (Denmark).