When it comes to men's university volleyball in Quebec, it is by no means a stretch to suggest the Laval Rouge et Or are almost in a league by themselves.
Although there are eight universities that have playing privileges within the RSEQ (the Quebec-based association within Canadian Interuniversity Sport), only three – Laval, Sherbrooke and Montreal – compete in men's volleyball.
It is a similar situation in the Maritimes, in the 11-member Atlantic University Sport, where only Dalhousie, New Brunswick and Memorial have managed to sustain a program.
It is far from an ideal situation and has many pondering what the future might hold at the CIS level when so many postsecondary institutions east of the Ontario border continue to turn their collective backs on the men's game.
"There's been a concern and there has been for some time," said Pascal Clément, the long-serving (22 years) head coach at Laval. He cited a lack of elite male volleyball players in Quebec as one reason for the decline.
Clement was speaking Wednesday on the telephone from Calgary, where his fifth-ranked Rouge et Or will compete at the CIS championship, beginning Thursday.
The women's volleyball champion will also be decided this weekend, in Regina, where the top-ranked University of British Columbia Thunderbirds will look to continue their national dominance, seeking a record seventh-consecutive CIS banner.
On the men's side, the Rouge et Or are the defending champs, this past year putting an end to the extraordinary run teams from the Canada West conference had enjoyed.
Canada West schools have won 34 of the past 38 CIS titles, the other four all won by Laval in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 2013.
This week's appearance at the CIS championship marks the 31st time in the past 33 years the Rouge et Or will participate, giving rise to talk Laval's success is linked to it competing within a small conference.
"In Quebec, for years, Laval has been the dominant team and Laval just sits and waits for the national championship to roll around," one CIS official said.
Clément begs to differ.
"It's not an advantage," he said. "There's not so many high-level volleyball athletes to go around. If it were an advantage, we should have won the national championship more often."
To help offset the low number of male teams, the RSEQ and AUS entered into an interlocking regular-season schedule, starting in 2003-04.
The two conferences also play an interlocking schedule in women's volleyball, but with a total of 11 teams (four from Quebec, seven within the AUS), that side of the equation is considered more vibrant for the time being.
Clément said he believes the game for the men is stagnating, at least in Quebec, because athletes are being forced to choose which sport they want to play at an earlier age. And for many, that game is not volleyball.
"In Quebec, in our system, I think it's one of the biggest problems," he said. "In sports for kids growing up, we run everything at the same time – football, volleyball, basketball. Everything is in the same season, and kids are forced at an early age to decide which sport they want to pursue."
Clément said he believes many are choosing to play basketball, which, like volleyball, values athletes that possess both a healthy height and agility.
"There's a tendency here to specialize in a sport much earlier than maybe what happens in other provinces," said Benoit Doloreux, RSEQ program director. "I know in other places more emphasis is made to make sure seasons don't overlap.
"While the women's game is not doing too bad, men's volleyball has been very difficult. It's been free-falling for the last several years."
Clément said the RSEQ will be holding a sports review later this year in which the state of men's volleyball will be one of the topics up for discussion.
The RSEQ used to be a four-team conference up until the 2009-10 season, when McGill pulled the plug on its men's program.
A big reason behind that decision was McGill's lack of competitiveness, winning just 11 matches against 81 losses over its five final years.
"The youth seem to be focusing on participating in other sports," said Drew Love, McGill athletic director. "The CIS is going to have to make a serious review of all of its sports and see where we're going."
Dave Preston, the president of the CIS men's volleyball coaching association, agreed the situation in Quebec and Atlantic Canada needs to be addressed. But he stressed men's volleyball in general is doing well in the country.
"I do know from a participatory basis, levels are up across the country in both genders at the club level," said Preston, who will guide the No. 2 McMaster Marauders into this week's national tournament.