After a season of battles, hard work and hard-won lessons, the University of Manitoba Bisons women's volleyball team is going out as national champions.
The Bisons staged a stunning upset in Regina on Sunday night, surging past the powerhouse University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in just three sets (25-22, 25-22, 25-20) to claim their seventh CIS championship. It was the first time since 2002 the Bisons have bested the Thunderbirds in a playoff game, and it couldn't have happened in a more dramatic way, as the Thunderbirds came into the match as six-time defending CIS champions.
'I'm speechless, words can't really describe it. I think we just knew that we were gonna win'
"I'm speechless, words can't really describe it," said Bisons star hitter Rachel Cockrell, named championship MVP after her spectacular 18-kill performance. "I think we just knew that we were gonna win. Our main focus going into this game was just to stay in the present, not to worry about the past and the future, just to go one play at time... (when we won), we were all so excited, there were more screams than words."
The Bisons didn't drop a single set on their weekend march to the championship title, putting on as dominant a display as longtime coach Ken Bentley can remember. "You couldn't lay out a better script for this championship," Bentley said, as he celebrated with the team in a Regina restaurant. "It happened because we stayed in the moment, stuck to our guns and stayed steady."
Most importantly, he said, the final win happened because the whole Bisons team learned their lesson. They lost the Canada West final to UBC just last weekend, where the home-cookin' T-Birds handled the Herd handily. But the conference silver medal earned them a pass to the national championship, and the Bisons swore that if they got another crack at the top-seeded UBC, they'd be ready.
So they were. This time around, Bentley said, the Bisons imposed their system on the T-Birds, while second-year libero Caleigh Dobie turned in a star passing performance to get the Bisons' big hitters set up for the kill. The squad served well, and Cockrell noted how some timely tips took advantage of the Thunderbirds' perimeter defence. "We felt prepared and settled, we threw our shoulders back and went at it," Bentley said.
Taylor Pischke finished with six kills and six digs for the new champs, Brittany Habing recorded a match-high 28 assists to go along with five blocks and Emily Erickson and Jordana Milne posted six blocks apiece. And as for Cockrell's 18 kills on 34 attempts, well, that speaks for itself.
"Taylor draws people to her, and it opened up chances for Rach," Bentley said. "She's the best back-row hitter in the country, and she demonstrated that today. She really was pretty unstoppable tonight."
-- -- --
Other Bisons news was not as triumphant, as the U of M men's hockey team dropped the deciding game of the Canada West semifinal against the University of Calgary Dinos, losing 2-1 in an overtime nail-biter. The Bisons battled bravely to stay in the series, as third-year forward Brendan Rowinski tied the game at 1-1 in the closing minutes of the second period, and netminder Joe Caligiuri helped push the Manitobans into bonus-time hockey.
The Bisons had responded from a Game One loss on Friday with a gutsy 3-2 overtime win on Saturday to force a third and final game.