The Heat women are off the blocks in the chase for another national medal in 2017.

The Canada West regular season has officially begun for this year’s UBC Okanagan Heat women’s volleyball team, as they split their first pair of games against defending national champions and archrivals, the UBC Thunderbirds.

In the home opener, the Heat never trailed once in the first set, winning it convincingly 25-18. T-Birds’ libero Samantha Patko’s early defensive efforts and 16 digs proved invaluable and seemed to help her new teammates find an eventual rhythm. The young but potent T-Birds ultimately spoiled the home opener, taking the next three sets 18-25, 18-25, and 24-26. The X-factor was Thunderbirds’ outside hitter Kiera Van Ryk, who finished the night with 19 kills and a total 22 points – impressive numbers considering it was the first Canada West match for the freshman out of Surrey. One positive for the Heat was the play of newcomer Ann Richards, who, despite all the talent on the court, was arguably the best player throughout the weekend.

“One positive for the Heat was the play of newcomer Ann Richards, who despite all the talent on the court was arguably the best player throughout the weekend.”

This is Richards’ first year in Kelowna, after beginning her collegiate career south of the border in Orlando. She went to Assiniboia High School in Saskatchewan, where she played basketball and was also a member of the track and field team. She grew up in a strong volleyball family, as both her parents were standout players in college and each won the CIAU, known today as U Sports, national championship. In high school, Richards was a three-time captain and in her senior season was named Saskatchewan athlete of the year. After graduating, she chose to attend the University of Central Florida where she garnered attention for her excellence in the classroom, making the conference all-academic team her first year on campus. She spent another two years in Florida before joining the women’s Heat team this past summer.

After the disappointing result on Friday, Richards and Co. looked motivated. Despite dropping the opening set 23-25, the Heat rebounded by winning the next three sets 29-27, 25-14, and 25-22 en-route to their first victory of the season. Middle blocker Aidan Lea, another NCAA transfer, outside hitter Siobhan Fitzpatrick, and Richards were dominant, combining for a total of 37 kills. The trio will be a force to be reckoned with in the future, as all three have another year of eligibility left after this season. Fifth-year players Erin Drew and Michelle Jakszuk, two holdovers from that enormously successful 2015-2016 team, also made solid contributions on Saturday with 9.5 and 9.0 points respectively.

Another player to watch this year will be setter Sara McCreary, who, despite being in just her second year, was stellar during the Heat’s opening weekend and accounted for a team-leading 77 assists. In the end, first impressions certainly indicate that this year’s team has the potential to earn a trip to nationals, due in no small part to their strong veteran nucleus.

After a trip to Langley to square off against the Trinity Western Spartans, the team will return home to face the Mount Royal Cougars on November 3 & 4 in the Furnace. They will be looking to build some more momentum and chemistry in hopes of ending their season like their first opponents did last year.