Best of the best?

By Lawrence Bailey

Allow me to be the first to admit it: I was wrong. Funny thing is, I’ve never been happier to be wrong in my entire life.

It all goes back to Dino Cup weekend.

I was perched in the press box, looking down on the Jack Simpson Gymnasium, chatting with Cameron Maxwell from the Calgary Sun as we waited for the Dinos women’s volleyball team to kick off their season against their arch-rivals, the University of Alberta Pandas. Small talk gave way to shop talk and we began prognosticating.

The conversation primarily centered around how we thought the team would fare this season–as they were a younger, less proven squad than in years past–and who we thought would take the next step, who would make "the leap."

I confidently put my money on the incumbent Canadian Interuniversity Sport Rookie of the Year, Janelle Findlay. Having seen Findlay perform incredibly well when given the chance the previous season at the national championships in Laval, Quebec, I thought she had the power, the poise and the precision to get it done.

Cam went a different direction, saying he had a feeling it was Joanna Niemczewska’s year.

Cam, I tip my hat to you. Well done.

In no way, shape or form did Findlay disappoint this year, she lived up to my expectations and more. However no one–not on the Dinos, not in Canada West, not in the country–had a year quite like Niemczewska.

"We’ve always had really high expectations for Jo, but this is the first year she really realized how good she was capable of being," smiled Head Coach Kevin Boyles. "This is the year she got it and became an elite player. She didn’t have a single off-night that I can recall all season."

Niemczewska did indeed have an incredible campaign, capturing CIS Player of the Year honours as a third-year player and playing an integral role in the Dinos’ national championship season, earning a nod as one of the final tournament’s all stars.

Wed., Apr. 14 saw her dream season get that much better as the Calgary native was named as the Canada West female nominee for the prestigious Borden Ladner Gervais Award as CIS Female Athlete of the Year.

"It’s great because our team is now an even bigger part of history," smiled the Saint Mary’s High School product. "This just means we must have a damn good team–and we do."

The BLGs, previously known as the Howard Mackie Awards, are held annually in Calgary and will take place Mon., May 3 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall. Niemczewska will attempt to become the fifth Dino, only the second on the women’s side, to win the since the award was first doled out in 1993. The sole female recipient from the University of Calgary thus far basketball star Leighann Doan, who took home the hardware in 2001.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said the genuinely humble Niemczewska when asked how it felt to be held in such esteemed company. "Jenny Cartmell? Leighann Doan? I don’t think I’m in a class with them.

"Once it hit me how big of a deal [the nomination] is, I was like ‘what is going on?’ I still don’t believe it."

While statistics and awards aren’t the lone factors in making a decision of this magnitude, Niemczewska’s glowing personality and kind demeanor definitely won’t hinder her chances of hearing her name called at the end of the evening. If you ask one of her biggest fans, however, it won’t even matter–he’s sure she is the class of the field.

"The biggest thing in Jo’s favour is that every women’s national title was won by Canada West, and she has been named the best player to come out of the conference," explained Boyles. "The other nominees may be able to match her individual accomplishments, but they don’t have the team success to go with it. To do both gives her a real advantage in my opinion."


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