Between them, they’ve spent 19 seasons wearing the green and white of the UFV Cascades.
And without a doubt, Adam Chaplin, Connor Nickel and Robert Bauerfind of the UFV men’s volleyball team and Nicole Blandford of the women’s squad have done the university proud during their time on campus.
This week marks the final PacWest regular-season games for the aforementioned fifth-year players with the Cascades, as men’s and women’s volleyballers wrap up their conference schedules with a home-and-home set vs. their crosstown rivals, the Columbia Bible College Bearcats. The two teams clash at Columbia Place on Thursday, and on Friday they’re back at UFV’s Envision Athletic Centre. The women play at 6 p.m. both nights, followed by the men at 8 p.m.
“When you get here in your first year, you think this is going to last forever,” Bauerfind said with a smile. “And all of a sudden, you’re in your fifth year and you’re halfway through the season, and you realize you’re only going to be in this gym a few more times.
“It gets you excited for this last game . . . you want to end on a high note.”
Blandford, Chaplin, Bauerfind and Nickel took time this week to reflect on the unique journeys that brought them to this volleyball milestone.
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It’s hard to imagine now, but Nicole Blandford’s distinguished five-year run with the Cascades almost didn’t happen.
Coming out of North Surrey Secondary in 2011, Blandford hadn’t been highly recruited and didn’t expect to play volleyball beyond high school. But in the summer – extremely late in the recruiting game – she got a call from Dennis Bokenfohr, UFV’s head coach at the time. A player on his roster had quit last-minute, and Blandford had been recommended to Bokenfohr by Greg Russell, who had coached her with Focus Volleyball Club. Russell also happened to be the Cascades’ men’s volleyball coach.
Suffice it to say, it was an awfully savvy signing. Blandford helped the Cascades win the CCAA national championship in her sophomore year, and since then, she’s matured into a quintessential senior leader and become one of the top setters in the PacWest.
Blandford not only runs the offence efficiently, the sight of her stepping back to the service line is downright scary for opposing teams. She’s fourth in the PacWest in aces (0.57 per set) on the strength of a tough jump serve.
Reflecting on her time at UFV, Blandford noted that being part of the national title team of 2012-13 was a huge highlight. What made that group special, she said, was how close they were off the court.
“It was an unreal team to be a part of,” said Blandford, who is set to complete her business degree this spring. “It was just an awesome group of girls, and I’m good friends with a lot of them still. We definitely built a bond.”
Mike Gilray, the Cascades’ first-year head coach, said he “couldn’t ask for a better leader” than Blandford.
“The young kids have grown to trust her, and she works her butt off every day,” he said. “I’ve been able to communicate directly with her, and the players have been able to communicate with her. She’s just had those qualities of a fifth-year, where she’s now experienced and mature and she understands what it takes.”
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Watching Adam Chaplin play, the first thing you notice is his explosiveness. The Mission, B.C. product stands just 5’10”, but the man gets up – his vertical jump was recently measured at 46.5 inches. He puts those hops to good use, whether unfurling scorching jump serves or hammering kills from his home on the left side.
His leaping ability is a matter of nature and nurture. His father Curtis was an accomplished volleyball player in his youth who played for the Canadian junior national team, so it’s fair to say the sport runs in the family. Chaplin’s athletic development wasn’t left to chance, though.
“We have a vaulted ceiling in our house, and my dad would hang a nut from the ceiling, and I would jump and try to touch it,” the Hatzic Secondary grad recalled with a chuckle. “Every time I would start to consistently touch it, he would raise it up a little bit. The ceiling was 10 feet, so if I’m starting in Grade 6 or 7, obviously I couldn’t touch 10 feet and there was room to grow. I guess it was just a lot of jumping over the years, and it grew from there.”
The jumping regimen yielded results – younger brother Steven is a former national team gymnast, and Adam is one of the most dynamic attackers in the PacWest. He’s currently sixth in the conference in both kills (2.99/set) and total offence (3.81 points/set), and ranks second in aces (0.64/set).
Chaplin is on track to graduate from UFV with a bushel of credentials – a business admin degree with a concentration in accounting, an economics minor, and a communications certificate – and he plans to take a crack at playing professional volleyball in Europe after he wraps up his coursework.
“He’s meant a lot to the program,” Cascades head coach Kyle Donen said of Chaplin. “He’s had a significant impact for us on and off the floor – he’s a big contributor to the school community and events that happen there. I know he’s got aspirations of playing pro, and he’s more than capable of doing that.”
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It’s been a long road, but in Year Five with the Cascades, Robert Bauerfind feels like he’s finally come into his own.
Bauerfind arrived at UFV in 2011 out of Surrey’s Fraser Heights Secondary as a right side, but struggled to get on the court consistently his first two seasons. It was partially a matter of injuries – his rookie year was derailed by an ankle injury and his sophomore campaign was truncated by back issues. It was also a matter of stiff positional competition. His first year, he was behind veteran all-star Aaron Flanagan on the depth chart, and his second year, a hotshot rookie – and future PacWest all-star – named Joel Kleingeltink arrived on the scene.
So Bauerfind began a positional migration to the left side, and he’s really arrived as a senior. His all-around skillset has helped him emerge as a key contributor for the Cascades.
“It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for me,” Bauerfind said with a wry chuckle, reflecting on his circuitous path to regular playing time. “This year, it’s felt like everything’s really come together.
“I found out who I was as a player. I’m not trying to bang all the balls away, like Joel and Adam do, but trying to be a little sneakier and finding my own way to score points. Kyle seems to like that – having a bit of a changeup from the other guys on the court. That’s kind of been my niche on the team, and that’s gotten me more playing time, along with being more confident passing and serving.”
Donen said it’s been gratifying to observe Bauerfind’s breakthrough.
“He and I had a really good conversation at the end of last year about what his leadership role would look like if he came back, and he’s had a great senior year,” Donen said. “He’s definitely taken it upon himself to be a contributor, and he’s done that in every way I could have asked.”
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Over the last decade, Connor Nickel has made quite a mark on the Abbotsford volleyball scene.
At Mennonite Educational Institute, the local high school volleyball powerhouse, Nickel climbed the provincial podium in his Grade 10, 11 and 12 years, highlighted by a B.C. AA senior boys championship in Grade 11. In 2011-12, he was part of a Columbia Bible College Bearcats squad which hosted the CCAA national championship and finished fourth. He transferred across town to UFV the following season, and for the past four years, he’s been a pillar of the Cascades program.
A major highlight along the way was getting to play with his brother Trevor during the 2012-13 season, his first with the Cascades.
“It was a great experience that definitely brought us closer in our relationship,” he said.
Donen said that Nickel, who ranks 14th in the PacWest in blocks (0.49/set), has always been a very consistent on-court contributor, but he’s sensed a different approach from him as a senior.
“He’s provided a leadership quality this year that was different than in past years,” Donen said. “Last year he was a lot quieter, but he’s come out of his shell a bit more. It’s nice to hear the opinions of your senior players.”
Being in his fifth and final year of eligibility prompted Nickel to ponder his legacy with the program, and that’s been the impetus for taking on more of a vocal leadership role.
“I want to inspire guys to want to follow,” he said. “I want to give an example like I’ve seen in the past. I think I’m building off the legacy of others, and now I want to continue that as a fifth-year – being unselfish and building the team.”
And as for Senior Night? It’s hardly the end – the post-season is still to come.
“I’m excited to see what this team can do (in the playoffs),” Nickel said. “All I’m thinking about is how we can succeed.”