John Barrett, president of the U Sports men’s volleyball coaches’ association, calls it the perfect storm.
Pat Hennelly will never utter the word “perfect” when describing what happened to his TRU WolfPack men’s volleyball team at the end of the 2018-2019 U Sports campaign.
“Why are we going to playoffs if it’s not going to count?” said Hennelly, the WolfPack’s 12th-year bench boss. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Prior to this season, the Volleyball Ranking System (VRS) was introduced, voted in by the U Sports men’s volleyball coaches’ association. The formula was designed by Ontario-based analytics and statistics expert Rob Pettapiece, according to Barrett.
The intention is to use data compiled throughout teams’ seasons to rank them nationally and use the formula to decide wild-card berths for the Canadian university volleyball championship.
Hennelly argues the system is flawed, saying it does not seem to place appropriate value on playoff victories.
The WolfPack posted an 11-11 record in Canada West play to finish sixth in conference standings and draw the third-place Alberta Golden Bears (17-5) in a best-of-three quarter-final series.
TRU was an honourable mention in U Sports top 10 rankings when it went into Edmonton and swept Alberta, which was U Sports’ fifth-ranked team.
When Hennelly saw what he described as a small jump in VRS points after the upset triumph, he knew his squad would have to reach the Canada West final to secure a spot at nationals, as both entrants claim automatic berths.
The Trinity Western buzzsaw shredded TRU’s season in the conference semifinal round, with the Spartans sweeping a best-of-three series at Langley Events Centre.
Hennelly’s hunch was proven correct when Alberta got the call to go to nationals based on its superior VRS standing. Adding to his dismay was what he said happened to UBC and Saskatchewan’s VRS positions after semifinal weekend.
“We lost ground to UBC and Saskatchewan, who sat at home and watched those games,” Hennelly said. “I don’t see how you can have a system that rewards a team for sitting at home and doing nothing.”
UBC (11-11) and Saskatchewan (12-10) were ahead of TRU in the VRS line for a national wild-card berth, although both fell short. TRU posted a 2-0 record against UBC this season and split a two-match set with Saskatchewan.
Barrett, head coach of the Toronto Varsity Blues’ men’s volleyball team, can sympathize with Hennelly’s plight, but said there was no backlash when the system was announced last year.
“Not a single coach or athletics director said I don’t like how this looks, how this feels,” Barrett said. “There was no pushback. There were no comments. There was nothing.
“Everyone knows it’s an imperfect system. Trying to get a system that assures that you have the best teams there, plus teams that perhaps come on late in the season, it’s difficult to perfect that system.”
Hennelly said there was no boost in value for post-season success.
“Find me any competitive coach that’s going to put the same weight on a regular-season game as a playoff game,” Hennelly said. “What’s next? Participation ribbons?”
TRU athletics and recreation director Curtis Atkinson has submitted a request to the U Sports men’s volleyball sport technical sub-committee to review VRS, with the goal of making improvements.
Alberta reached the U Sports bronze-medal tilt before losing to host Laval.
Hennelly said it is reasonable to suggest the WolfPack, who dispatched the Golden Bears, could have won a national medal if given a crack at Laval last weekend.
National hardware goes a long way in program prestige and recruiting clout.
“You have a school that didn’t advance in playoffs and still earned a berth in nationals,” Atkinson said. “Competitively, we feel like it diminishes what sport is all about and, financially, it makes us almost question the investment [to travel to Edmonton and Langley] if playoff results don’t carry more weight.
“Pat did a great job preparing them to play at an important time and our team delivered. I think most people in sport would agree playoffs is crunch time.”
Trinity won the national title.
Prior to this season, Canada West did away with its bronze-medal match, deeming it unnecessary if there is no automatic berth to nationals granted to the winner. Travel is expensive and, to some, it seemed a prudent decision.
Hennelly said it was shortsighted and Atkinson said it might have to be reconsidered, as the winner of a conference bronze-medal match would conceivably earn VRS points that could lead to a berth at nationals.
“As we’ve seen this play out, our institution has asked [Canada West] sport committee to look at that again, depending if we continue with the VRS system nationally, that we should reconsider the bronze-medal match in the conference if it gives a Canada West school a chance to improve their VRS.”
Rocky Olfert is managing director for Canada West.
“It’d be entirely up to the members whether they want the bronze-medal game,” Olfert said. “I’ve talked to Curtis on a few occasions. I know he’s put forth some discussion items.
“There was no wrongdoing. There would just have to be more transparency. I certainly felt for TRU, but in the end this is what was accepted a year ago with the VRS system and we have to live with it this year.”
There has been a lack of communication and transparency about the VRS formula, according to Hennelly, who said he voted against it and was also against nixing the Canada West bronze-medal match.
“We vote this system in and it’s a secret,” Hennelly said. “We don’t know the exact formula.
“I truly believe that this system was weighted slightly against Canada West because we’ve dominated nationals, we’ve dominated the number of teams that have gone. I think they wanted to see if there would be more of a balance.”
Among Hennelly’s gripes with VRS is what he deems to be an overvaluing of matches in the second half of the regular season, noting the decaying value of matches played earlier in the campaign can be unfair.
“I don’t set the schedule,” Hennelly said. “I don’t determine when I play Winnipeg (7-15). We did our job and beat Winnipeg. UBC beat Winnipeg in the second half. That’s worth more points than our win in the first half.”
There is likely an argument to be made against TRU, one that boils down to something like: Sour grapes. Do better. You lost 10 of your last 14 regular-season matches. Alberta swept you in the regular season.
Pettapiece did not respond to request for comment before press deadline.
Barrett noted it was former U Sports men’s volleyball coaches’ association president Dave Preston — longtime head coach of the Ontario University Athletics powerhouse McMaster Marauders’ men’s volleyball team — who spearheaded bringing in a new rankings system and introduced Pettapiece.
“Dave Preston is the one that initiated it and brought in Rob and explained that this is part of his [Rob’s] living,” Barrett said. “He doesn’t just go and give out the algorithm.
“I think there are coaches having issues with that aspect of it, from what I’ve heard, the transparency of the actual algorithm.”
Preston was not available for comment before KTW’s press deadline.
“Do I think this is perfect? Obviously not after this year,” Barrett said. “But right now our hands are tied.
“If I was sitting in Pat’s seat, I’d probably be feeling like Pat, but the regulations are clear. Everybody’s hands were tied. It will have to get discussed.”
TRU will be engaged in those talks.
“If this is going to happen to us, I hope it’s for a reason and I hope there’s some change,” Hennelly said. “We have to work at the U Sports level.
“I’d like to get a quote from U Sports saying, ‘Hey, we admit that this is flawed and TRU bore the brunt of it this year. We’re hoping to change things to make it more in line with competitive sports and playoffs.’”