Vernon’s Danny Aspenlieder attacks the net for the UBC Thunderbirds in Canada West volleyball play against the Regina Cougars. The T-Birds won their first national title in 35 years. (UBC Athletics Photo)

Aspenlieder savours UBC glory

Thunderbirds take national volleyball title

He couldn’t eat or drink on Day 1 of the recent TELUS National U Sports Men’s Volleyball Championships at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Things got a touch better over the next 48 hours and Danny Aspenlieder found a way to contribute as the UBC Thunderbirds toppled the two-time defending national champion Trinity Western Spartans of Langley 3-0 (25-22, 25-18, 27-25) in the gold-medal final. UBC captured the Tantramar Trophy.

Aspenlieder, a Fulton grad in his second year with the T-Birds, contracted strep throat just before the tournament and spent opening day in his hotel room.

“It was a rough time,” chuckled Aspenlieder. “I felt it coming on the day we flew out. It was at its worst the second day of nationals. I didn’t want to risk getting any of my teammates sick so I lived on Advil until I got on some meds and then I was better. They left me alone for the first few days and then started razzing me.”

UBC head coach Kerry MacDonald, a Revelstoke product, got the 6-foot-7, 215-pound serve specialist into some clutch situations, knowing full well Aspenlieder would come throw, ill or not.

“Danny has been our top serving sub for two years in a row now,” said MacDonald. “He has one of the best jump float serves in our league and has consistently showed nerves of steal serving when the match is on the line. This championship he came down with strep throat and couldn’t even make it to our quarterfinal game. He powered through though and in the fourth set of the semifinal, we were up 16-15 and we subbed in Danny. He hit six tremendous serves in a row allowing us to score on the first five serves. He subbed out with us now up 21-16 and we went on to win the set and therefore the match, 25-20 and three sets to one.”

It was UBC’s first title in 35 years. Trinity Western was looking for their fifth title in eight seasons and trying to become the first team to claim the crown in three straight years since Winnipeg Wesmen won four straight from 1971-74.

“That was pretty crazy to just go in to serve in a national tournament in a packed gym,” said Aspenlieder, who plays the left side. “University volleyball is a really big deal at McMaster so the crowd was loud. We had some great crowds this year but this one was really big.”

While he didn’t get much floor time, Aspenlieder had a fabulous time watching the older T-Birds strut their stuff.

“I think we had a lot more seniors (than Trinity) so we had a lot more on the line. Our seniors played so well.”

UBC lists five fifth-year players on its 18-man roster, including tournament all-star left side Irvan Brar of Surrey (Fraser Heights Firehawks) and 6-foot-8 setter Byron Keturakis of Surrey (Earl Marriott Mariners), named tournament most valuable player. Both players are with the national B team.

“I’m ready to be an impact player next year,” said Aspenlieder. “These first two years were more of a developmental phase. I had to learn how to be a student-athlete. Our seniors taught me how to play at the next level. They can all play professional volleyball in Europe. It was a real pleasure to play with that group; it was pretty special to win a national title with them.”

MacDonald took the helm of the T-Birds in June, 2016, replacing Richard Schick, who spent a dozen seasons at UBC. Aspenlieder is rather in awe of coach MacDonald.

“We’re both from small towns so we have that in common,” said Aspenlieder. “He can get technical at times, like he is with my serve which he wants at exactly 65 kilometres an hour. He gets into sports science too, but mainly, he always says the right thing. He’s one of the smartest people I know. He’s got a Phd in sport injury prevention.”

The Vernon-born Aspenlieder, who turns 20 in two weeks, registered seven service aces, eight digs, 18 attacks and 15 points in 54 regular-season Canada West sets. He got in 14 playoff sets and posted one service ace and one point.

Determined to be a starter next season, the amiable Saskatchewan Roughrider fan (by order of his father, Rob) has a plan in place.

“I’m staying down here all summer so I can do training and make sure I can be the best I can be next season. The gym is right across the street. I’ll get some kind of job, as long as I make more than my rent.”

Aspenlieder will share a place with a few UBC swimmers. He is studying urban forestry but hopes to switch his major to natural resource conservation next fall. An avid fishermen, Danny loved skiing at Silver Star for the first time in a year during a visit home at Easter.

He’s stoked about a pre-season tournament in Italy which will see the T-Birds play the University of Padua near Venice. It was founded in 1222 and is the world’s fifth oldest surviving university. They leave Aug. 25 and return Sept. 3.

Trinity Western, behind national player of the year Adam Schriemer, were the top seeds at nationals. They finished the season 42-3. The Spartans stopped UBC 3-2 in February, one night after losing 3-1.

UBC went into the nationals as the No. 3 seed. They lost to Alberta Golden Bears in the Canada West semifinals, and then grounded Winnipeg for the third and final spot out of the league to nationals. The T-Birds dispatched Alberta 3-1 (25-17, 25-18, 22-25, 25-20) in the national semifinals.

Lake Country’s Fynn McCarthy, a 6-foot-6 freshman middle, was chosen Player of the Championship Game. Brar also took the R.W. Pugh Fair Play Award.

The Thunderbirds’ last appearance in the men’s volleyball final came in 1984, one year after they claimed the national title.

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