WINNIPEG — As the final few points of her home volleyball career with the University of Manitoba Bisons wound down, Tori Studler sat on the bench with fellow fifth-year senior, libero Cassie Bujan, soaking everything in at the Investors Group Athletic Centre on Feb. 9.
Studler, a 22-year-old from Grosse Isle, and Bujan were honoured by the Bisons prior to a 3-1 (25-11, 25-18, 23-25, 25-21) loss to the visiting University of Regina Cougars in a match that would have seen Manitoba clinch its spot in the Canada West playoffs with a victory.
After the match, surrounded by more than 20 friends and family members, Studler received a slew of congratulatory compliments, shared several embraces and shed more than a few tears.
“It’s a great accomplishment and definitely a tough pill to swallow to be done, but it’s good,” she told The Stonewall Argus & Teulon Times.
However, Studler almost didn’t come back for her final season with the Bisons and the chance to enjoy a senior sendoff.
She was trying to focus on the demands of being a second-year medical student last fall and didn’t commit to rejoining the Bisons until the final two matches of the first semester.
“I wasn’t done, this is the one goal that I set for myself a really long time ago and I knew I needed to finish it,” Studler said. “Once my school was able to flexible with volleyball again it made the decision really easy to come back, and (head coach) Ken (Bentley) was really understanding of that.”
“It’s tough but it’s manageable,” she added. “Everybody says you can’t do both of your goals but you don’t accept that and you do it anyways. It’s a grind no matter what faculty you’re in.”
Bentley was more than happy to welcome the five-foot-11 left side back to the team.
“She’d been practising with us in the first term and then midway through we talked about it, and I said, ‘Why don’t you finish your career as a Bison? You’re here, you’re playing great volleyball, so let’s do it.’” Bentley said. “She actually played her last league weekend against Brandon and she was a big part of those wins. We needed to win both of those badly to salvage a first term that was ravaged by injuries.”
Studler arrived on campus after completing her high school volleyball career with the Neelin Spartans in Brandon, helping them reach the varsity girls’ AAAA provincial final in December 2013, only to fall 3-2 (25-20, 19-25, 24-26, 25-20, 15-5) to the MBCI Hawks. She also played club volleyball in the Wheat City with the Brandon Storm.
Making the jump from high school to the Canada West level didn’t translate into immediate success in her first season. Studler only saw action in 11 matches, registering six kills and eight digs.
In her second and third seasons, however, Studler became a big-time offensive weapon for Bentley. She started 41 of the 44 matches she played, recording 382 kills, 335 digs, 30 aces and was involved in 50 blocks.
But her last two seasons saw her transition into more of a complimentary role, focusing more on her defence. She finished the 2017-18 campign with 113 kills, a .130 attack percentage, 138 digs, 15 aces and was involved in 24 blocks, while starting 14 of Manitoba’s 24 matches.
In 11 matches — four of which she was in the starting lineup — this season, Studler has notched 69 kills, 85 dig, three aces and has been involved in 15 blocks.
“It’s kind of been up and down,” Studler said of her Bisons career. “It’s been a huge mental game for me, not just physical because there were different roles that were played throughout my entire career, and having to be flexible with that and having to balance the different emotions you can have was tough.”
“I definitely focus on my defensive game now. I try to be the best and cover my teammates as much as I can. Now it’s a defensive game,” she continued. “If you can out defend the other team that’s what’s going to win. We do have some girls that can put away the ball but at the end of the day it’s defence that’s our main point that we need.”
Although the season isn’t over — Manitoba sports a 12-11 record with one road match against the fifth-ranked Trinity Western University Spartans, on Feb. 16 in Langley, B.C., and is fighting for its playoff lives — Bentley is going to miss Studler.
“She has been the consummate student-athlete. Every day, she comes in with a smile on her face and goes to work and every day when I see her, I’m just happy to see her and spend time with her in the gym,” he said. “She’s been phenomenal for our team and you just won’t find a more quality kid to have the chance to coach. I’m really grateful to have had her here for five years.”
Studler isn’t sure what direction her life will veer toward after she completes her medical degree in 2020, but volleyball will always remain a part of who she is, which is something she’s regularly reminded by in the form of notes from her Brandon billet Donna Hamm, who died of cancer in summer 2016, that she keeps close to her.
“She’s still a huge part of my life no matter what,” Studler said through tears.
Hamm was certainly looking down on Studler during her senior sendoff.