In the explosion of their championship moment on Monday night, the Mennonite Brethren Hawks girls' volleyball squad cried out exhausted, but so very much alive.
It wasn't clear until that last point against the 2012 champion Neelin Spartans, the one that clinched the fifth set 15-5 on a scrambly play, the Hawks would survive the final. From start to finish it was a nail-biter and a grind, the kind of battle that absolutely had to go all five. "It was awesome," raved Hawks' Katie Friesen, 16, who was named to the tournament all-star team.
She said this as the red Hawks sea closed around her on the court, family and friends and fans celebrating the scrappy win. "The feeling is so unreal," she said. "I would always come as a kid to watch volleyball finals, and to play at the U of M, and to play in front of all this crowd is a dream come true. The energy of the fans, even the opposing fans, it was awesome."
That energy was evident from the opening serve. On the court, the girls slapped hands and pumped fists, they bellowed for each point as if it had been the match winner. They played through pounding drums and the roar of a thousand voices in the stands, and through the noisemakers that bleated and rattled from frothy seas of red and Spartans green. And they had a lot of reasons to make noise throughout the night, all those fans for either team.
Here's a sample of how it went: Neelin jumped into the lead in the first set but couldn't hold on, as MBCI scraped their way to tie the tilt at 17, and then surged forward to win 25-20. The second set ground down the same, though this time the Spartans held on to win 25-19. They sealed it when setter Amy Gordon and middle Alison Quiring threw up a block the Hawks couldn't save.
That was a refrain that would be sung all night, as the Hawks looked to solve the Spartans' wall of arms, their wealth of powerful players. They found frequent answers in, among other things, lightning defensive reflexes from Friesen, efforts from tournament MVP Maiya Westwood, and laser-guided kills from Shayna Staerk. But overall, it was their serving that would turn the tide, coach Angela Diboll said. "We needed to serve tough," she said. "We really focused on that, like crazy."
And yet, for a time, it looked like the Spartans might repeat their 2012 title feat. The third set was explosive, 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 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, 26-24, and with that the Spartans took a 2-1 set lead. What Diboll said to her Hawks after that she couldn't remember when the game was done. It must have worked, because if the Hawks were bloodied then, they were not about to die: after an ugly start to the fourth, MBCI stormed back 25-20 to force the final frame.
That was as tight a game as players and coaches had expected. They'd met in the final last year, remember, and that too was a blazing game -- and one that raced in the Hawks' minds, as they made the adjustments they needed to become the new AAAA provincial champions. "We just had to get even more fire, more fuel to beat them," Friesen said. "We didn't want to lose again."