Even Brad Gunter knows he can't shoulder the entire load for the TRU WolfPack men's volleyball team this season.
Gunter, fresh off starting for Canada at the world junior championship, is set to lead the WolfPack into the Canada West regular season. TRU is scheduled to play the UBC-Okanagan Heat in Kelowna tonight, before the teams battle at the Tournament Capital Centre on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Gunter, a third-year right side from Courtenay, has been excellent in each of his two Canada West seasons, but the WolfPack has missed the playoffs in both. It isn't entirely on him to get TRU back into the postseason, but he is the man on this team.
"With Gunter being better, it's like the biggest piece of our puzzle got a little bit better and everyone else a little more confident," said WolfPack head coach Pat Hennelly, who has been suspended by Canada West for the WolfPack's first game after inappropriate conduct in a preseason match earlier this month.
"When you've got a guy like Gunter, he can relieve the pressure . . . and that helps everyone tremendously."
Gunter, who stands 6-foot-6, was one of Hennelly's top recruits in 2011, and has done well, but not spectacularly, in his first two seasons. With his experience on Canada's junior team, which finished 12th at worlds in Turkey, Gunter is as confident as he has ever been heading into a season.
"There might be a bit more pressure, but I'm handling it well," Gunter said. "I'm way more confident after the summer - I started for the junior national team. I got tons of confidence and tons of experience, and I'm hoping I can bring that to the team."
The thing with Gunter is that everyone in Canada West knows him and, therefore, everyone in Canada West is prepared to defend him.
That's why Hennelly is looking to get a well-rounded offensive effort this season. He has the weapons, with Casey Knight, Hardy Wooldridge, Jacob Tricarico and Nic Balazs all having shown that they can contribute, and he has the setter, with Colin Carson in his fifth season with the team.
But perhaps the biggest wild card is Philip Ozari, a second-year outside hitter from Denmark. At times, Ozari was excellent - he had three aces and 15 kills, including the winning point, in an upset victory over the UBC Thunderbirds in January - and at others, he struggled.
If the WolfPack wants to get back into the playoffs, it has to see more consistency from the 6-foot-4 Dane.
"If you look at our wins last year, with 80 per cent of them, Phil had a good match," Hennelly said. "In Denmark, they don't often play back-to-back, it's a small country and they don't have the travel that we have, and I think that played into (the inconsistency). I expect that he'll be better now that this is his second year.
"Phil wants it so bad that he puts a tremendous amount of pressure on himself. . . . He wants to be the guy, he works out a lot - we actually have to stop him from going to the gym and working out too much."
Carson, Tricarico and libero Spencer Reed are in their fifth seasons with the WolfPack. Carson has been in the middle of the action for all five of his seasons, setting balls to the first generation of WolfPack stars, like Robin Schoebel and Gord Perrin, then to Kevin Tillie, and now to the likes of Gunter and Co.
He's excited by the options presented to him this season.
"We've been able to retain a lot of our core players from the last few years," said Carson, one of five Prince George natives on the WolfPack. "That's a big thing to start with - we're not losing guys to (academics) like in the past, so that's huge.
"Our offence is looking a lot stronger."
This WolfPack team definitely has the talent to finish among the top seven teams in Canada West and make the playoffs, but the exact same was said of TRU at this time last year. The WolfPack did have its moments in 2012-13, beating three ranked teams, but also had its stinkers, losing to non-playoff teams like the Regina Cougars and Mount Royal Cougars.
TRU was 8-14 and tied for eighth in the conference.
"I feel like we're right on the verge of breaking through," Hennelly said. "That last 10 per cent to become that solid, consistent team is the hardest part. I feel like we're right there and . . . we've got all the pieces of the puzzle, we just have to get over that performance hump."
Hennelly is confident with the middle position, which includes Daniel Eikeland Rod, Tricarico, rookie Jordan Foot and Balazs. Balazs, who is currently nursing a hamstring injury, and Foot, who is ill, won't play this weekend.
Hennelly pointed out that he needs his blockers - along with all of his players - to be better at one other skill.
"We've got Brad, we've got Carson and Phil, but we need guys to bring two of the six skills," Hennelly said. "You have to give me some attacking and give me some serving; give me some blocking and give me some defence - that's what we're looking for and that's what we were missing last year.
"We need all six cylinders going at the same time."
SIDE OUTS: The WolfPack also will be at home to the Calgary Dinos on Nov. 1 and 2, with both matches to start at 2:45 p.m. . . . Of its 22 matches this season, TRU will play 11 at home. . . . Along with Foot, the WolfPack has three other rookies - OH Randy Grundmann, from Winnipeg, S Tyler Pomietlarz, from Winnipeg, and L Jared MItchell, another Prince George native. . . . Hennelly said the Heat sees the WolfPack the same way the WolfPack sees the Heat: "Two teams that were out of the playoffs - they're looking at us as a team they need to beat, and we're looking at them as a team we need to beat."