MANITOBA'S best young volleyball players took to the courts over the weekend to take on the nation's best.
The University of Manitoba's Investors Group Athletic Centre played host to Canada's top under-18 women, 10 provincial teams from eight provinces, while Manitoba's under-19 men competed in Gatineau, Que., for the other half of the 2014 National Team Challenge.
The under-18 women's side wrapped up Sunday with Team Alberta knocking off Team Ontario in the championship final in four sets. After dropping a close first set 26-24, Alberta rallied to take the second set and the teams turned the third into an up-and-down thriller.
Both teams fought off multiple set-points, but it was only a matter of time before Alberta's strong-hitting left-side Kate Pexman would close it out, 34-32, after countless balls were set her way. Alberta cruised to the national title in the fourth, taking the match 24-26, 25-15, 34-32, 25-16.
"I was just trying to control myself and not think ahead, not think what happens if I mess up or score on this point," said Pexman, 17, who was named the tournament's most valuable player. "I was just trying to be in the moment and I let it get away from me a couple times -- messed up a couple points -- but I told the setter I wanted the ball and so she kept giving it to me till it finally worked."
Team Manitoba finished preliminary play in second place behind Ontario. After losing their quarter-final match in five sets, they stormed back with a three-set rout of Team Quebec (27-25, 28-26, 25-21), placing them in the fifth-place game against Team New Brunswick on Sunday.
Manitoba struggled early with finding their serves and blocking the New Brunswick kill shots. They found themselves trailing 2-1.
"My message to them after the third was 'Listen, New Brunswick has an opportunity to win this fifth-place match and go home real happy because they beat Manitoba in Manitoba, and we're not going to let that happen,' " head coach Chris McLennan said. "I just reminded them this is a measure of pride -- do we want to sort of fall over and give up, or do we want to continue to fight back and take back what should be ours?"
Manitoba regrouped and rallied to an impressive five-set victory, 21-25, 25-11, 18-25, 25-12, 15-11, highlighted by excellent serving and crucial kills from Logan Desorcy. Though not winning a medal at home was disappointing, especially after a tough loss in the quarters, setter Tyneille Neufeld said they knew the importance of ending on a high note.
"We went in with heart, we knew this was our last game," Neufeld said. "So we just went in wanting to win. We knew we didn't want to end the tournament on a loss. We had the motivation."
The under-19 men wrapped up their tournament Sunday, finishing in a disappointing eighth place. Team Manitoba finished second in preliminary play before losing all three matches in the playoff round.
They started things off in the quarter-finals against Team British Columbia, losing in three straight sets and then lost in four sets to Team Saskatchewan (25-21, 25-20, 26-28, 25-23). In the seventh-place game against an under-18 Team Ontario, Manitoba lost in straight sets.