Bisons, Wesmen take it to the limit
U of M punches ticket to national championship with victory over cross-town rival
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The road to the U Sports women’s volleyball national championship ran through the Duckworth Centre Friday night.
Given the magnitude of what was at stake, anything less than a five-set marathon wouldn’t have been appropriate and so the Winnipeg Wesmen and the Manitoba Bisons went the limit.
When they were done two hours and 31 minutes later, the visiting Bisons, who began the Canada West playoffs last month as the sixth seed, hammered out a stirring 25-21, 27-25, 20-25, 21-25, 15-13 victory in the third-place match before a near sold-out crowd of about 1,600 fans.
“What an epic match,” said Bisons head coach Ken Bentley.
“Winnipeg had such a great season and it was just a classic tilt of Winnipeg-Manitoba volleyball. I mean, they gave us everything we could possibly handle and we were just what, two points better in the end? That’s what it came down to.
“But these matches at this time of the year often come down to that and that’s why you train and lift and get your reps in the summer and do all that stuff.”
The Wesmen, who were ranked seventh in the country entering the weekend, came ever so close to claiming third place in Canada West, and thereby claiming the final spot in the field for the U Sports national championship, slated for Vancouver March 17-19.
Winnipeg rallied from a two-set deficit to force a fifth set, eventually tying the set 12-12 but it wasn’t to be the fourth-seeded Wesmen’s night.
With Raya Surinx’s final kill — her team-leading 26th of the match — the Bisons were heading to nationals. Left side Ella Gray added 13 kills while Andi Almonte added 11 kills and 26 digs.
The Duckworth Centre crowd was large and animated.
“I think there is a little bit more anxiety, but I think we were all able to treat it just like a regular game,” said Gray of the raucous atmosphere. “We were calm and confident in ourselves. I think like I knew that our whole team could beat Winnipeg. I knew had the potential to do and it was just a matter of us being able to stay calm and treat it like any other game. I thought we did do that.”
Manitoba libero Julia Arnold had 35 digs while setter Katrina Bentley had 60 assists.
“It was a good match,” said Wesmen head coach Phil Hudson. “I was very disappointed to lose but we’re very proud of the girls for fighting back after being down 2-0… There was a very high level of volleyball on both sides of the net and a couple of breaks here and there we came out on the wrong end of it.”
Ashleigh Laube led Winnipeg with 20 kills and 25 digs while teammates Emma Parker and Haille Bujan added 14 and 12 kills, respectively.
Setter Portia Switzer had 50 assists.
“Volleyball’s really a core sport in this province and (the fans) turned out today,” added Bentley. “I don’t know if they could’ve found a better match to come watch — it was pretty spectacular. I mean, the defence on both sides was crazy good.”
It was the first head-to-head post-season meeting between the city rivals since 2011-12 when the Wesmen beat the Bisons (3-2 and 3-0) to advance to the conference semifinals.
The stakes were high for both programs.
The Bisons will return to the nationals for the first time since 2013-14, a year they won it all.
Winnipeg, meanwhile, has not been to the big dance since 2002-03.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.