When the group of players that made up the 2012 Neelin Spartans varsity girls’ volleyball team came together two seasons ago, they set a goal of winning the provincial AAAA high school championship.
It didn’t take long for the Spartans to accomplish that feat, winning it in their first year at that level. It was the first ever AAAA varsity girls’ volleyball title for Neelin, which stepped up to that level after previously competing in the AAA ranks based on the school’s size.
The title — won by 10 students in Grade 11 and three in Grade 10 — combined with a provincial under-16 Tier 1 club volleyball championship and a fourth-place finish at the U-16 national tournament, led the Brandon Sun’s board of selectors to name the Spartans the 39th winner of the Mike Jones Team of the Year Award.
The current incarnation of the Spartans was formed in the fall of 2010. Head coach Kevin Neufeld announced he was looking to put together a competitive volleyball team from Neelin that would move up the ranks together. They practised for most of their first season instead of going into tournaments, but their efforts were rewarded when they won the provincial AAA/AAAA junior varsity girls’ title.
They followed that season up by winning 47 straight matches in 2011, before losing the provincial JV girls’ title to the MBCI Hawks. Neufeld believes that loss did a lot for his players and served as a lot of motivation for 2012.
"Losing that one was a real eye-opener that on a given day that anybody can beat somebody," he said. "Having beaten them previously, they outplayed us in the provincial final. That was a good incentive to get back into the gym and find a way to get better."
The Spartans used that incentive well. Kristine Ward joined the team, transferring from Elton Collegiate, in time for the club season and they were dominant from start to finish. The Spartans club team, which did not include the three Grade 10 students on the high school team, lost only one set at the provincial championship and capped the event with a 2-0 (25-14, 25-12) win over the Winnipeg-based Fusion. Setter Amy Gordon was named the tournament’s most valuable player and middle Alison Quiring made the all-star team.
That team then went to Toronto for nationals where the Spartans went 5-1 in the preliminary rounds to reach the semifinals of the 119-team event. However, the magic ended there as they fell 2-0 (30-28, 25-17) to the Eclipse East from Pickering, Ont., in the bronze-medal match.
The team reunited for the high school season and posted a 33-7-2 overall record, winning the Brandon High School Volleyball League before taking the provincial AAAA title. Neelin defeated the MBCI Hawks 3-1 (18-25, 25-12, 25-23, 25-20) in the provincial final at Winnipeg’s Duckworth Centre, atoning for their previous season’s lone defeat.
Gordon had seven kills and five aces in the final and was named the tournament’s MVP. Ward, who had 12 kills in the final, and Quiring, who added 10 kills and six blocks, were named to the all-star team, while Paige Thomson’s nine kills earned her player of the match honours.
Neufeld wasn’t expecting to have so much success in one year, but he gives his players a lot of credit for buying into his system and the amount of work they put in at the gym.
"I think everyone on our team understands that without the other people around and doing their jobs that we’re really not that good," Neufeld said. "We don’t have that one person who’s going to get 20 kills ever in a match. … Some teams have that one go-to player they’re going to rely on every day and I think that we really have to rely on everybody.
"I would say we also trained and put more hours in. We do some physical training along with our on-court stuff and we do team meetings. We do some technical and tactical kinds of things. We probably spend more hours than the average high school team, if not more than any team in the province."
The Spartans, who picked up a trio of Grade 10 students for the last two matches of the high school season, took a lot of pride in all their accomplishments through the year.
The top honour, however, was winning the AAAA title. That achievement earned plenty of praise from people in the community and a few visitors to the school to look at the new championship banner.
"It means a lot," Neufeld said. "It’s one of those things that it means a lot to the community. … People were really happy for us and a lot of people came in and watched the game and supported us and overall we’re just really pleased that someone from Brandon and our community could be that successful at that level."
Our runner-up for the 2012 Mike Jones Team of the Year Award would have been a worthy winner as well.
After winning their second straight provincial senior men’s curling crown last year, Kelly Robertson and his team brought back silver medals from the world senior championships in Taarnby, Denmark in April.
Robertson, from Neepawa, third Doug Armour of Souris, second Peter Prokopowich of Dauphin and lead Bob Scales of Winnipeg posted a perfect 8-0 record at the worlds before falling 6-5 in an extra end to Ireland’s John Jo Kenny in the championship final.
Robertson’s team, which earned its trip to the worlds by winning the 2011 national title, didn’t fare as well in its return to the 2012 Canadian championships, going 6-5 and missing the playoffs.
» Brandon Sun
MIKE JONES AWARD WINNERS:
2012 — Neelin Spartans, girls’ volleyball
2011 — Brandon University Bobcats, men’s volleyball
2010 — Brandon Tri-Star Storm, volleyball
2009 — Westman Wildcats, hockey
2008 — Crocus Plainsmen, girls’ basketball and volleyball
2007 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball, and Brandon Cloverleafs, baseball
2006 — Terry McNamee, curling
2005 — Crocus Plainsmen, hockey
2004 — Brandon AAA Midget Wheat Kings, hockey
2003 — Club West Rage, girls’ volleyball
2002 — Crocus Plainsmen, girls’ volleyball
2001 — Mike McEwen team, Linda Van Daele team, curling
2000 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1999 — Crocus Plainsmen, boys’ volleyball
1998 — Lois Fowler team, curling; Mike McEwen team, curling; Lisa Roy team, curling; Doug Armour team, curling; Rob Fowler team, curling
1997 — Neepawa Farmers, baseball
1996 — Brandon Wheat Kings, hockey, and BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1995 — Brandon Wheat Kings, hockey
1994 — Brandon Cloverleafs, baseball
1993 — Maureen Bonar team, curling
1992 — Boissevain Broncos, boys’ basketball
1991 — Maxine Heritage team, curling
1990 — Duane Edwards team, curling
1989 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1988 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1987 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1986 — Vincent Massey Vikings, girls’ basketball
1985 — Vincent Massey Vikings, girls’ basketball
1984 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1983 — Mabel Mitchell team, curling
1982 — Mel Logan team, curling
1981 — Cec Leach/Petey Two, retrieving
1980 — BU Bobcats, men’s basketball
1979 — Brandon Wheat Kings, hockey
1978 — Riverside Canucks, baseball
1977 — Brandon Wheat Kings, hockey
1976 — Deloraine Royals, hockey
1975 — Vincent Massey Vikings, girls’ basketball
1974 — Don Barr team, curling.