I was paging through the Dalhousie Tigers' media guide earlier and came across quite an interesting stat. The Tigers have appeared at 31 straight CIS championships. They've won 24 straight Atlantic University Sport championships and 30 of the last 31 (presumably, their other appearance came either when they were hosting or when the AUS wound up with two spots). Current head coach Dan Ota has been there for 11 years and won 11 straight AUS championships; he's also been named AUS coach of the year nine times in that span. Clearly, AUS volleyball is Dalhousie and everyone else.
The question, though, is if that dominance is a good thing or a bad thing for the program. On the plus side, that probably gives them first crack at any Maritime recruits who want to stay in the region. Their almost-guaranteed spot at nationals also can be a significant recruiting advantage, allowing them to draw more national recruits than they probably would otherwise; only three players on the current roster are from the Maritimes, with two from Halifax and one from Newfoundland. The rest are spread out everywhere from Victoria, B.C. to Cobourg, ON. Dalhousie does have a good volleyball program and would draw people even without the guaranteed berth, but it certainly can't hurt their recruiting efforts.
Where it might hurt them, though, is in quality of competition. I'll have more on this later, including Queen's coach Brenda Willis' thoughts on the matter, but for now, suffice it to say that the opponents you play before nationals can make a big difference to how you do once you're there. It's not just in terms of their physical talent, although that plays a role; it's easier to fall into lazy digging habits if the spikes and serves aren't coming hard, and you don't have to execute a hit perfectly if you're up against a shorter blocker.
What may be even more important is the systems. Volleyball is an incredibly tactical game, full of different passing schemes, setting and serving techniques and attack routes, and even minor variations on these can present a problem. If you're playing less-skilled teams all the time, you're probably not going to see as much variety, and you'll be less prepared for what might come your way. Even small changes can have a big effect; a common theme that came up in my conversations with Queen's players and coaches after their loss today was that Trinity Western's fast pace poseed a huge challenge for them. If you're not seeing those kind of different systems from elite competition, you might struggle to adjust to them.
Tonight's game may prove a case in point. The Tigers were seeded third this year and came into the tournament with a strong roster, but after winning the first two sets against Calgary, they started to struggle. The Dinos fought back well, winning sets three and four handily and then knocking off Dalhousie 16-14 in a tight fifth set. Would things have been different if Dalhousie had faced tougher competition throughout the year? We'll never know, but I'd guess they might have.
How has this worked out for Dalhousie overall, though? Well, their results show the same combination of positives and negatives discussed earlier. They've never won a national championship, but they finished second in 1997. Their last four finishes are fourth, fifth, fourth and fifth which seems about right. They always make the dance, and they're rarely the worst team there, but they never seem to quite pull it off, and that lack of elite competition might be a reason why. Still, as a fan or an athletic director, you can make a good case that being there every year might do more for your program and your national profile than making it to nationals a few times during that span and winning once.
[Cross-posted to The CIS Blog]