The Neelin Spartans are a win away from battling for a provincial volleyball title.
The second-ranked Spartans face the third-seeded Glenlawn Lions in tonight’s semifinals (6 o’clock, University of Winnipeg’s Duckworth Centre) at the AAAA varsity girls’ high school provincials, with a berth in Monday’s championship match on the line.
"I think our whole team is pretty excited," said Spartans middle Paige Thomson. "It’s all we can really think about, ever since we won regionals … I think we are ready to go out and perform at the level we need to be, which is hopefully peaking at this point in the season."
Thomson will be one of the key players for the Spartans tonight, along with fellow middle standout Alison Quiring, left side Jordan Hardy and setter Amy Gordon, arguably the best setter in her age group in the province. The bulk of this Spartans squad was the core of the teams that earned silver and gold medals in the past two Manitoba junior varsity finals, before moving up to the varsity ranks this year. The Spartans are also normally a AAA-sized school, but made the choice to move up to the AAAA ranks to face the best the province has to offer and have more than held their own.
"I think we are playing real well," said Spartans head coach Kevin Neufeld, whose team eliminated Brandon’s Vincent Massey Vikings in straight sets in last weekend’s provincial quarter-finals to advance to the final four. "We’re trying to get that little bit better as we go into (tonight). Our left sides, at times, didn’t score as well as we had hoped on Saturday and we have spent a bit of time trying to clean that up."
The Spartans have had success versus the Lions this season, winning both of their matches. However, they know anything can happen in a one-match showdown, particularly with Glenlawn featuring the largest player on the court in 6-foot-5 Emily Potter.
"We’ve won both times we’ve played Glenlawn, but you never know when it comes down to the playoffs, what’s going to happen," Thomson said. "So we have to stick to our game plan and stay prepared."
The Spartans will need to shut down the Lions’ impressive left side attack tonight and execute on their side of the net, particularly in their passing game.
"I think we have to pass the ball well," said Neufeld, whose team sports an overall record of 31-7-2 this season. "If we pass the ball well and we can get our middles involved offensively. Their middles are not as good as our middles, then I think we will be able to take advantage of that."
Tonight’s second girls’ semifinal features the top-ranked Mennonite Brethren Hawks against the No.5 Miles Macdonell Buckeyes.
CAN YOU DIG IT: Six other provincial volleyball championships will also be held this week, including two in Westman, with Souris playing host to the AA varsity girls’ tournament and Russell running the AA varsity boys’ event, both starting Thursday and running through to Saturday’s finals ... The Souris event has the Forrest-based Elton Sabres gunning for their fourth straight girls’ title after becoming the first team in more than 30 years to win three straight AA championships last season. They are ranked third this year behind the top-ranked Russell Major Pratt Trojans, with the host Sabres fourth and the Minnedosa Chancellors fifth ... In Russell, the host Trojans are ranked No.1 for the AA boys’ provincials, while Elton is ranked fourth and Souris is fifth ... The Dauphin Clippers are the top-ranked teams at the AAA girls’ provincials in Lorette and the AAA boys’ championship in Ile-des-Chenes ... At the A girls’ provincials in St. Jean Baptiste, the Shoal Lake Sharks are the top Westman team in the draw, seeded second. Meanwhile, at the A boys’ provincials in Elm Creek, the Reston Tigers are the top local team, also seeded second.