The small school won the big prize at the 2012 Boston Pizza AAAA Provincial High School Volleyball Championship on Monday night at the University of Winnipeg Duckworth Centre.
The Neelin Spartans varsity girls volleyball team won the first-ever AAAA provincial title for the Brandon school, defeating the Mennonite Brethren Hawks 18-25, 25-12, 25-23, 25-20 before a packed house.
The Spartans, usually a AAA school based on population, found a way to make the unusual usual in the championship match as setter Amy Gordon was also her team's top attacker in the final with seven kills and five service aces. She was named the tournament's most valuable player.
"This is just the best thing that has ever happened to our team. Coming in as a three-A school, no one really expected us to win or even put up a fight," said Gordon, one of 10 players in Grade 11 on the team. The core group of Grade 11 players won a AAA junior varsity provincial championship when they were in Grade 9. There were three Grade 10 players on the team and no Grade 12s.
"We all knew what we had to do and we came and we did it."
What the Spartans did was stay calm after losing the first set, regroup and then blast their way back into the match in the second set.
"We were a bit worried (after the first-set loss), but we knew we had to put that game behind us and focus on the next games," said Neelin right-side Tara van den Ham. "It means a lot to our team and our school to win this. We fought really hard and we had great coaches to get us here."
In the pivotal third set, Gordon had back-to-back service aces to give the Spartans a five-point lead. But the Hawks, led by kills from left-side Kalena Schulz, battled back to within one point three times late in the set. Neelin's middle attack, anchored by Alison Quiring, could not be blocked or stopped and the Spartans went into the fourth set with plenty of momentum.
"All we could do today was come out with the best we had and have fun, and that's what we did," said MBCI captain Laura Klassen. "Neelin played great and that was a great match for us."
Neelin head coach Kevin Neufeld, in his third season with the Spartans team, moved his team to the AAAA level this season based on the talent level on the team.
"It just means a lot to our kids to have an opportunity to play at that level, and to be the No. 1 team in the province is a reward for their hard work," said Neufeld. "We set a goal to get in the top four here a couple of years ago when this group came together. We've got 250 practices as a group over the last two-and-a-half years and they've worked really hard."
In addition to Schulz's leading 15 kills for MBCI, Shayna Staerk had 11 kills. Players of the match were Staerk for MBCI and Neelin's Paige Thomson and the tournament's Players' Choice Award winner was Emily McPherson from the St. Mary's Flames.
Named to the tournament all-star team were: Laura McManes of the Glenlawn Lions, Brianna Solberg of the Miles Macdonell Buckeyes, Neelin's Kristine Ward and Alison Quiring and MBCI's Kalena Schulz and Katie Friesen.
Boys: Gabrielle-Roy (Iles des Chenes)
Girls: Linden Christian Wings
Boys: Niverville Panthers
Girls: Major Pratt Trojans
Boys: Rosenort Red Hawks
Girls: Nellie McClung Stingers (Manitou)