The Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute Hawks are the new AAAA provincial girls’ volleyball champions, claiming the title in a thrilling five-set victory over Brandon’s Neelin Spartans at the University of Manitoba Investors Group Athletic Centre on Monday night.
The teams battled back and forth throughout four tight sets. Neelin jumped into the lead in the first set but couldn’t hold on as MBCI finally tied the tilt at 17 and surged forward to take it 25-20.
The second set started off from the same script, though this time the Spartans held on to win 25-19. They sealed it when Spartans setter Amy Gordon and middle Alison Quiring threw up a block that the Hawks couldn’t save in time.
The third set started with a battle, a real back-and-forth boom-pow, as the Hawks and Spartans wrestled points: 12-12, then 13-12 on a little tip-in kill by Katie Friesen, then back to a tie at 13. Even when the Hawks clawed open a 20-16 lead, the Spartans managed to bring it back to loggerheads at 21. Then the Mennonite Brethren squad took the lead to 24-21, and were just a heartbeat away from a win.
Five unanswered points later, they’d lost the set. It pivoted on this moment, with the Hawks ahead 24-23 and with a chance to win: but Hawks star Friesen bashed the ball into the net and it was tie-game again. The Brandon squad followed this with two brisk kills from Neelin middle Paige Thomson, and the third set went to the Spartans, 26-24.
But if the Hawks were bloodied then, they were not about to die. They roared back from an ugly deficit in the fourth to win 25-20, and then clamped down hard in the fifth to seal the championship with a 15-5 fifth-set win.
Royals wouldn't be denied
With the chance at the top provincial volleyball championship humming in his veins, Lord Selkirk Royals left side Brandon Sutherland slammed the ball once and again.
This was late in the fifth set of the final between the Royals and the St. Paul’s Crusaders on Monday night, with the Lord Selkirk squad leading 14-8 and the championship trophy already glinting in their sights. Three times Sutherland leaped up and hammered the ball down on the Crusaders, and twice they dug it right back out. It was almost as if he was willing the ball to go in and when it finally did, it sealed his team’s AAAA boys’ varsity championship win.
For that kind of intensity, Sutherland was named the tournament MVP.
"I really wanted to get the game-winning kill, I really wanted this for the team," Sutherland said after, the whoops of his teammates still whipping through the air. "I thought the first was going in for sure. They dug the second one up, but the third one I had to put away. Third one’s the charm."
With that, the Royals squad finished what they started last year, when they fell in the final to the Mennonite Brethren Hawks in three. This year, they’d already gotten past that team, when they triumphed over them in last week’s semifinals. So on Monday night at Investors Group Athletic Centre, the only thing standing between them and the glinting silver trophy was a jacked-up wall of maroon.
Not that it was going to be that easy against the top-seeded Crusaders squad. Of course, at first it looked like the Royals might cruise to victory. They won the first set 25-22, and marched to a 25-23 win in the second set.
But in that third set all heck broke loose, as the desperate Crusaders clawed their way back from the brink. The St. Paul’s squad tied it up at 21 with a smashing kill from left side Bruce Akubukaka, and the fans shrieked like thunder.
What followed was a blood-pumping duel, a series of wild and desperate rallies. It ended when St. Paul’s left side/middle Ryan Stasiuk threw up a block that enchoed from the rafters, and the ball shrieked down from his hands to nail his team a 28-26 third-set win.
"They had us worried for sure," coach Jeff Scarcello said, as he celebrated his first varsity coaching championship, and the Royals’ first boys’ varsity crown since 1994. "They turned around, played great, made some changes and it took awhile for us to adjust."
Surging, the Crusaders rode their newfound momentum through the fourth set, taking it 25-17 to force the final frame. But though the momentum so sharply shifted, the Royals never let their dream slip away. That fifth set, Scarcello said later, was the best his team had ever played, as libero Riley Reckseidler made some spectacular digs and Sutherland, finally, put it all away.
"They were unbelievable," the coach said. "It just seemed like our guys decided that was it. It was going to be our turn to turn it up, and our guys made some great plays. It was a lots of fun to watch... I couldn’t have asked for anything more for my first championship."