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Former Piper Anna Price now hitting all the right notes for UBC Thunderbirds

October 23, 2019

anna-price-web.jpgUBC Thunderbirds outside hitter Anna Price hits a kill past the MacEwan University Griffins during U Sports Canada West volleyball action at the University of B.C. in 2017. Rich Lam/UBC Athletics / PNG

by J.J. Adams, Vancouver Sun/Province

She gained a mysterious inch on her height between her first season with the UBC Thunderbirds volleyball team, but the story about Anna Price’s evolution isn’t about becoming bigger, stronger or faster.

It’s about becoming smarter.

As an unheralded rookie, Price spent most of her time in street clothes, struggling to find her mojo and role with the team. Fast-forward 4 1/2 years, and she’s the undisputed team leader and one of the Thunderbirds’ primary offensive weapons — even if she isn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest.

“My first year, I struggled a lot with confidence,” said the 5-foot-10 — that height is official now — outside hitter from North Vancouver who had a match-high nine kills and 11 digs in last week’s season-opening sweep of the Winnipeg Wesmen at the Duckworth Centre.

“It’s tough coming in as a smaller outside hitter, on a team that historically has been successful at breeding Olympic players, national team players. I struggled a little bit feeling that I deserved to be on a team that was so high-calibre. But I’ve grown in learning to exploit the strengths that I do have, rather than trying to compare myself to others. I worked on trying to be more of a crafty, smart hitter, rather than a big-jumping, pounding-the-ball type hitter. That was never who I was going to be.”

“This is a player … who didn’t start for (her club team) out of high school. I don’t think we’ve had a player in our program who wasn’t at least a starting player,” said University of B.C. coach Doug Reimer. “Yet, she has consistently — in whatever role is asked — been clutch. She’s raised her game at key times. Her mental toughness, her strength, is very high. She’s not that big physically, she’s not that tall, but she brings other assets. Her service reception, she passes the ball extremely well, she finds ways to get kills … even if it’s not with overwhelming power or height.

“For all the smaller power hitters in high school, they should watch Anna.”

Last week’s win, their first regular-season action since capturing the 2018 U Sports title, had the Thunderbirds check in at No. 2 in the national rankings. And much like that missing inch on Price’s height, the numbers are a bit misleading.

UBC had zero starters from last year’s championship team on the court against Winnipeg, with the departed including finals MVP and U Sports female athlete of the year Kiera Van Ryk (turned pro in Italy), captain Victoria Behie, Ciara Hanly and Samantha Patko, all whom graduated. They were further depleted by the absence of Jayde Robertsen, the outside/middle hitter who transferred to UBC from Eastern Washington last season, to a concussion suffered in the pre-season.

“(The ranking) bears nothing to what people would actually think,” said Reimer. “Start with zero, and hover right there.”

But Reimer’s squad already proved it doesn’t put much stock in rankings. Checking in at No. 8 before last year’s nationals, a team with seven rookies made it all the way to the final, where they fought back from a two-set hole to upset the defending-champion Ryerson Rams. It was the second title in three years for UBC, giving them 12 total — more than any other U Sports program.

“I’ve been really pleased with how the group has handled the challenge,” Reimer said of the new season. “We have a lot of players new to the program a year ago, and players coming back from injury, they’ve all embraced that. There are certain pieces you can’t obviously replace, but I can’t ask for more than how the team is responding right now.”

Price has played a big part in that as one of just two fifth-year players on the team, taking up the leadership mantle vacated by some of the most successful players in team history.

From her role as a spectator for much of her first season, to her Willis Reed role of 2018 — where she came back from an injury that saw her tear six ligaments in her ankle — the Argyle Pipers grad has provided a stabilizing presence.

“I have to admit I was a little bit nervous coming into the year, but I honestly have such a great group of younger players. It’s been a lot less pressure than I originally expected. It’s been a lot of fun, and an easier transition than I could have asked for,” she said. “We spent a lot of time last year building on team culture, since half of our team last year were rookies. It’s going to be a different sort of team culture building in that we’re … a lot more raw talent, but definitely still a lot of talent. It’s just going to be building that confidence and experience so those players feel like they deserve their spot on the court.

“We’re not lacking in talent … so I’m excited to see where this year takes us.”

First, it’s another road trip — this time to Saskatoon to face the Huskies (2-0) this Friday and Saturday, before UBC (2-0) returns home Nov. 1 and 2 to host the Mount Royal Cougars, the same night they’ll raise their 2019 national championship banner to the War Memorial Gym rafters.