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Spartans, Hawks redux

Neelin, MBCI girls will battle for title again

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Last year, the Neelin Spartans varsity girls volleyball squad rode out the snowy roads to Winnipeg from Brandon, and when they returned, it was as provincial champions.

Now, the girls from Manitoba's western edge have a chance to repeat the feat: they will face their old foes, the Mennonite Brethren Hawks, in a championship rematch at 6 p.m. Monday.

Both teams punched their ticket to the final with confident semifinal wins at Investors Group Athletic Centre on Wednesday night, as the Spartans dispatched the Miles Macdonell Buckeyes and the Hawks surged past the Westwood Warriors.

That sealed a rematch of the 2012 championship.

"I know that we're kind of the outsiders, and they're like 'Oh, here comes the Brandon girls,'" said Spartans middle hitter Paige Thomson, who was named team MVP of the semifinal win. "We've been playing against these girls ever since we were in Grade 8, and all the way up. I think it's been really beneficial to our school to have us be at this level. It's just an honour to be here."

To get there, the Spartans first had to battle past the third-seeded Buckeyes in three sets, claiming each 25-13, 25-19 and 25-19 to win the match. They looked confident, but of course, they've been through this before.

"We took some things away, and I was real happy with our team," coach Kevin Neufeld said.

"We just have more offensive weapons, and once we got the ball under control a little better, we were able to have a little more ability to terminate."

The Hawks sealed their pass to the final with a convincing semifinal win over the Warriors, taking the match in three sets: 25-22, 25-18 and 25-19. Left side Tyneille Neufeld was named the player of the game for the Warriors, while Hawks Grade 11 setter Maiya Westwood was named MVP for the winning side.

Hawks coach Angela Diboll thought her players were, perhaps, sometimes scattered in their focus; she'll work that out this week in practice.

"I thought we played well," Diboll said. "I think the biggest thing for us right now is... a game isn't just played in one points, or three points, it's played in an hour or longer. The girls need to not let their emotions get the better of them."

That will be a special challenge, with the finals looming large on the horizon.

The Hawks knew they could get there, of course.

There were no real upsets in the girls' playoff bracket this year, and the final matchup shook out as the season standings suggested it might: the top-ranked Hawks, the No. 2 Spartans, with one last battle to decide who wins it all.

Last year, the championship stretched to four exhausting sets and the Spartans triumphed in the end. This time around, the Hawks will be hunting for redemption.

"We'd love to get another shot at them," Diboll said. "They're a really strong team. And I think between us, it's going to be a big serving battle, and again, who can stay focused for a long period of time."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 D6

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