Kevin NEUFELD will tell you there's a lot to like about his Neelin Spartans varsity girls' volleyball squad. But if there is one singular characteristic about the bunch that makes it a consistent winner, it might be this:
Under any circumstances -- way ahead, tight contest or rallying from behind -- they act like they've been there before... and will be there again.
The Spartans, comprised entirely of Grade 10 and 11 girls and ranked second in the province, knocked off the third-seeded Glenlawn Lions 3-1 (21-25, 25-21, 28-26, 25-22) in the first semifinal of the Boston Pizza AAAA Varsity Volleyball Championships at the University of Winnipeg's Duckworth Centre Wednesday night, punching their ticket to Monday's final.
They'll meet the top-ranked Mennonite Brethren Hawks in the championship after they survived a scare before knocking off the fifth-seeded Miles Macdonell Buckeyes 3-2 (12-25, 25-20, 16-25, 25-19, 15-9) in the other semifinal.
The Spartans dropped the first game 25-21 before rallying, including being down 17-8 in the pivotal third game before getting up off the mat for a 28-26 win. And that's something Neufeld has seen before from his crew.
"It was a bit of a roller coaster," Neufeld began. "It was a battle... lots of big leads and comebacks. Obviously, being way down in the third set and being able to come back and win that was for sure the big turning point.
"We've been pretty patient at times and although we're a young group we play with some good composure. We don't get too rattled, we don't get really high when things are rolling and we don't have a tendency to get real down when they don't. I thought we were really patient and got on a good serving run with Alison Quiring there and it gave us a chance to get back in the match.
"It's a special group," he added. "They're all in Grade 11 and we took this on a couple of years ago when they were all in Grade 9. I've coached this group for three years now and our goal was to be competitive at the AAAA level. We're making a good run at it so far this year, but we've got one big one to go."
Quiring may have helped spark the Spartan's comeback, but this is a balanced team that got solid work from a number of players, including setter Amy Gordon, who was named Neelin's player of the game. And now the Spartans are one step closer to capturing another title for Brandon -- Crocus Plains, whose roster included Quiring's older sister Angelica -- won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10.
"It's very exciting," Quiring said. "It's kind of been a dream of mine ever since I saw my sister win the provincial final two years in a row for Crocus. It's kind of like a dream come true."
The Hawks, just like the Spartans, are also a young squad with just three Grade 12s on their 12-player roster. But they also showed a resiliency in rallying against a plucky Buckeye team that battled to the bitter end.
"Boy, I'll tell ya, that was a great match," said Hawks head coach John Schmidt. "There were a lot of nerves. We're young, but we stepped up and stayed solid when we needed to. It was just an awesome match.
"The biggest thing with this team is they really get along. These kids genuinely like each other, love to come to practice and work hard and so it's just a joy to work with them."
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AND THEN THERE WERE TWO
No. 2 Neelin Spartans def. No. 3 Glenlawn Lions 3-1 (21-25, 25-21, 28-26, 25-22)
Players of the game
Neelin: Amy Gordon; Glenlawn: Jenna White
No. 1 Mennonite Brethren Hawks def. No. 5 Miles Macdonell Buckeyes 3-2 (12-25, 25-20, 16-25, 25-19, 15-9)
Players of the game
Mennonite Brethren: Katie Friesen; Miles Macdonnell: Cassandra Bujan
Monday, 6 p.m. (Shaw TV)
Today, U of W Duckworth Centre
No. 1 Mennonite Brethren Hawks vs. No. 4 St. Paul's Crusaders, 6 p.m.
No. 2 Lord Selkirk Royals vs. No. 3 Miles Macdonell Buckeyes, 8 p.m.