PHIL HOSSACK/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Neelin’s Paige Thomson (10), Jamie Campbell (3) and Tori Studler (7) eye up a tipped ball in Monday night’s AAAA girls final in Winnipeg.
WINNIPEG — Back-to-back AAAA provincial high school titles were not in the cards for the Neelin Spartans varsity girls’ volleyball team on Monday.
Neelin Spartans Paige Thomson (10) and Kristine Ward block a Mennonite Brethren Collegiate kill attempt during the provincial AAAA varsity girls high school volleyball championship final at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg on Monday. The defending champion Spartans fell 3-2 to the MBCI Hawks.
(PHIL HOSSACK/ WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
The Spartans, a AAA-sized school playing up in the AAAA division, took a 2-1 lead but struggled in the final two sets of the provincial final and fell 3-2 (25-20, 19-25, 24-26, 25-20, 15-5) to the MBCI Hawks at the University of Manitoba’s Investors Group Centre in Winnipeg last night.
Neelin, ranked second in the province, looked like it had a chance to win its second straight provincial final over the top-seeded Hawks, whose lone loss this season came at the hands of the Spartans. Neelin took two of the first three sets and built a 7-1 lead in the fourth, but the Hawks battled back to outscore the Spartans 39-18 the rest of the way.
"It’s so hard because it’s the last go at things," said Spartan middle Paige Thomson, a Grade 12 student who finished the match with 12 kills. "I know we worked hard for all four years and it really, really sucks that it has to go this way, but someone has to win."
The Spartans, who lost only four matches all season with three of those to the Hawks, feel they started thinking too far ahead when they were up in the fourth set and that they just couldn’t come back.
However, the biggest issue they faced was the vaunted Hawks servers. MBCI, which has a strong reputation of being tough from the service line, registered 16 aces in the contest, eight of which came in the final two sets.
Kalena Schulz had four of those, including three in a row in the fourth set to give MBCI a 14-9 advantage, and Shayna Staerk added three in a row in the fifth set to virtually kill the Spartans’ hopes to knocking off the Hawks for the second straight year.
"They served the ball very tough," said Neelin head coach Kevin Neufeld. "Sometimes you lose confidence in your passing and then the setter’s chasing the ball a little bit and then we’re hitting the ball out of system a little more. All those things need to work together and good serving makes it a challenge and it sure was for us late in the match."
The Spartans relied on their middles to get things going in the final, and Thomson stepped up, adding five blocks to her 12 kills. Alison Quiring, Neelin’s other starting middle, added nine kills and was involved in five blocks, with Kristine Ward also recording nine kills. Setter Amy Gordon was the other all-star for Neelin, which scored five straight points to overcome 24-21 deficit in the third set and push the Hawks to the brink.
But MBCI countered with a balanced attack that left Neelin guessing which of the five hitters on the court would get the ball. Janelle Neyron led MBCI with 13 kills, with Staerk and Katie Friesen, who were named to the all-star team, adding 12 and 11, respectively. Setter Maiya Westwood served four aces and was named the most valuable player.
This was the third straight year that the Hawks and Spartans played for provincial bragging rights, with MBCI winning the 2011 junior varsity title before Neelin won the varsity AAAA championship last season.
Although the 10 Spartan players who are in Grade 12 would have liked to end their high school career with a championship, Thomson will value the time and memories from playing with her teammates, most of whom have been together for four years.
"I love every single one of these girls and I can’t imagine playing volleyball with anyone else except my Spartan ladies," she said. "We’ve been in every single provincial final and there’s not a lot of people who can say that, so I’m honoured to be a part of this team and to have played with these girls."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 3, 2013