It's hard to imagine trying to fill a bigger pair of shoes on the Vancouver Island University Mariners women's volleyball team than those of Dani Smith, but that is the task ahead of Ashley Cousens.
Smith was a two-time all-Canadian setter for VIU and lead them to a Canadian Colleges Athletic Association championship on their home floor in 2012. She was the engine of one of the most powerful teams the Pacific Western Athletic Association has seen.
But Cousens is not coming in unprepared.
The fifth year senior transferred in before last season after two years as a PacWest all-star with the Capilano Blues and spent the year as an understudy.
Tonight, she will get her first real chance to show she can run the Mariners complicated offence as the M's open their 2013-14 campaign against the Camosun Chargers at 6 p.m. at VIU.
"I learned a lot last year, from just talking at time outs and talking at practice," said Cousens. "Playing that year behind her last year made a he difference in how comfortable I feel stepping in this year, because I feel I've had a hand in stepping into it, rather than just being thrown in."
Head coach Shane Hyde likes what he has seen out of the 22-year-old Courtenay native and G.P. Vanier Secondary School product through training camp and the exhibition season.
She came in with a more confident attitude this year and has taken on a leadership role with the team.
"I think there was an intimidation factor last year," said Hyde. "Now that Dani's gone, Ashley knows this is her team and her confidence level has skyrocketed and she's got a lot of respect from the team."
He is not completely surprised by the adjustment. Hyde had coached the five-foot-nine setter on club teams in previous years before she went on to star at Capilano.
But she is also inheriting a much more complicated offence than the one she ran with the Blues, with far more weapons.
With options like Leanna Gildersleeve, Alyssa Wolf and Megan Groenendijk on the wings and Tyler Turnbull and Ashley Van Acken in the middle, among others, she has plenty of teammates to keep happy.
"Back in Capilano she ran a very simple offence. .. this year I want her to run a whole bunch of different styles," said Hyde.
"She's starting to get it and right now she's having a lot of fun with it. It's always exciting for a setter to be able to do that, but with it comes a lot of thinking."
If she slips up, she also knows Hyde - who is admittedly extra hard on his setters - will be on her in a flash, though they are on the same page right now.
"He definitely expects more out of his setters than any coach I've had before," said Cousens. "He's definitely a hard coach to play for, but it's something I could mentally prepare for before I came here."
But she says she is up for the challenge.
She sees this as her chance to make an impact on a team that very likely should challenge for another CCAA championship, and they are preparing for such.
It is her final year of eligibility, so she's got to make it count.
"I definitely feel a little pressure from me, because I've never gone to nationals," said Cousens. "There's always the pressure, everybody wants to go, but the key is to not look past provincials. Every year it's always looking at nationals, looking at nationals, but we've got to focus on provincials first and the season leading up to provincials."
The Mariners came up short of their goal last year.
After sailing through the season, they were upset in the PacWest provincial semifinal by Columbia Bible College, ending their dream of a repeat.
They learned a big lesson from that experience and have a much more workmanlike approach this year. Hyde says they may not be as flashy this year, but they are arguably deeper and tougher mentally.
"I learned from last year, the season is a pre-season almost," said Hyde.
"We need to take a different approach here, almost, than I've taken for 14 years. It's not about winning now, it's about the whole process to the end."
The Chargers are coming off a 9-15 season, but are returning top left side Hilary Graham and middle Morgan Marshall, while veteran setter Erika Sheen has transferred in from the Lethbridge Kodiaks of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.
They also always play their Island rivals tough, and Hyde is expecting nothing less this weekend.
The teams head to Victoria on Saturday to play the second match.
It is a match their new starting centre will remember for a long time.
"It kind of feels like it has come full circle," said Cousens. "(To have my) final home opener here in this gym is pretty cool.
I watched Island Rivalry growing up, so to now be a part of it in my final year is pretty cool."
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