Telegraph-Journal photo

A second-year smash

by Scott Briggs - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

FREDERICTON - Just two years ago, Jill Blanchard wrapped up an outstanding volleyball career at Saint John High School.

This weekend, she'll be playing for a national title at the University of New Brunswick. The 19-year-old is a right-side hitter with the UNB Varsity Reds, who are hosting the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's volleyball championships at the Aitken Centre.

The eight-team tournament begins Thursday night and wraps up with Saturday's championship contest. Seventh-ranked UNB opens against second-ranked Université de Montreal Thursday at 8 p.m.

"This season has been amazing," said Blanchard. "We've showed lots of fight, but it's not over yet."

The V-Reds are hoping to continue their recent run that saw them capture this year's Atlantic University Sport women's championship for the first time since 1995. UNB edged the Saint Mary's Huskies 3-2 in the decisive match by game scores of 23-25, 25-23, 28-30, 25-15, 15-8. Moncton's Heidi Mouris had 28 kills, 13 digs and hit an impressive .426 per cent on 54 attempts.

Blanchard said being the conference champion and host team is extra special.

"We wanted to earn our way in and we did," she said. "We have to stay together as a team and just keep battling for every point.

"We have a lot of height and a lot of blocking. We're really strong both offensively and defensively. We have a very talented team all the way around and everybody brings their own thing to the table."

And Blanchard brings more than most.

Aside from her hitting and blocking abilities, UNB head coach John Richard said Blanchard is one his team's best passers, defenders and servers.

"She had an unbelievable first year," said Richard, noting Blanchard was the AUS coaches' unanimous choice as rookie of the year in 2006-07. "She couldn't have had a better year in the classroom or on the court. Sometimes players who do well in their first year have difficulty repeating, but she has continued to play well."

Well enough to be a second-team all-conference selection.

"She at times was our best player this year," Richard said. "She does a lot of different things for us.

"She's a big piece of the puzzle right now and for the future. We have a lot of fourth- and fifth-year kids, and for her to stand out on an older team is pretty impressive. She's also one of our toughest kids mentally."

Aside from Blanchard and Mouris, the V-Reds' roster is peppered with other New Brunswick talent - Sussex's Erica Hay, Bathurst's Tanya Paulin and Fredericton's Melanie Doucette, Jessie Yeates and Jen Fox.

It wasn't long ago that Blanchard played against some of those players in the high school ranks. A lot has changed since then, most notably the calibre of competition.

"The university level is definitely faster, but you just have to adapt," Blanchard said. "You're pretty much thrown into games and it's been a pretty good transition. I've been trying to give it 100 per cent."

Blanchard said the V-Reds' positive team culture was a key factor in her adapting so well in her first year. She's carrying on that tradition of making new players welcome.

"When rookies come in, we try to make it as easy as possible with the transitions," said Blanchard. "I can definitely appreciate that because I went through it last year. The girls were really welcoming and accommodating."

As a second-year biochemistry major, Blanchard's school schedule is just as intense as her commitment on the court.

"It's tough sometimes, but you know what you're doing it for," she said. "If you have good time-management skills, you can do it."

Meanwhile, following are Thursday's other games - Alberta (1) vs. Saint Mary's (8) at 1 p.m.; British Columbia (4) vs. Sherbrooke (5) at 3 p.m.; Calgary (3) vs. McMaster (6) at 6 p.m.

On Friday, the consolation semifinal games begin at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., followed by the championship semifinal contests at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday's action includes the fifth-place match at 2 p.m., followed by the bronze-medal contest at 4 p.m. and the gold-medal game at 7 p.m.

Published Wednesday February 27th, 2008
Appeared on page B6