Sammy Ludwig lost an entire season and a shot at a provincial title when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 high school volleyball season.
Fortunately, the 6-4 setter and his Westgate teammates are back at it again — this time with even more serious designs on the school's first AAAA varsity boys crown since 1978.
The Wings enter Saturday's Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association AAAA final four at Sturgeon Heights Collegiate with three tournament titles, a 28-0 record and the No. 1 seed.
Westgate faces the No. 4 Steinbach Sabres in one semifinal with the winner advancing to the 8 p.m. final later in the day. The No. 2 St. Paul's Crusaders and third-seeded Sturgeon Heights Huskies were eliminated during last week's quarter-finals.
"(Winning) would be amazing," said Ludwig earlier this week. "It would cap off a pretty incredible season."
Ludwig won't be done with the game when his Grade 12 season is over.
After spending a portion of last summer with the national junior team, the 17-year-old will head to the University of Manitoba in fall to play for the Bisons, who are coached by his dad, Lupo Ludwig.
With the versatile Ludwig directing traffic, Westgate has a lethal attack that includes the fearsome hitting duo of 6-1 Rowan Krahn and 6-5 Dylan Martens.
"He's absolutely one of the top setters in the province but he's a phenomenal all-around player," said Wings head coach Maiya Westwood of Ludwig. "He's plays a great right side. He has amazing line hits — like crazy good. He sets for our team because he fits into that position best, I guess, with the other guys that we have."
In discussions with his dad and Canada Games provincial team coach, Mike Stevens, Ludwig has decided to make a more permanent move to the position. He towers over most rival setters.
"Now that I've gotten older, I've looked around and I've kind of realized there's lots of big guys who can jump and hit the ball hard and there's not that many guys that are my size that can set very well," he said. "So I felt that I had a big advantage if I stayed in setting."
While the pandemic layoff limited competition, Ludwig said his skills actually improved over the last year when his club team was finally able to stage small-scale workouts.
"It actually made me better because I focused a lot more just on small, specific things like setting and serving," he said. "But one big thing I noticed is that when I got back into the proper game play, I just felt slightly overwhelmed by all the stuff that was going on just because we hadn't done it in so long and we weren't allowed to have 12 guys on the court at the same time...
"It took me a couple of weeks to adjust to playing six-on-six volleyball again but I do feel like my individual skills got better."
Ludwig is an elite player but he isn't doing it by himself. Westgate's experienced lineup gets great work out of Krahn and Martens, both left sides.
"Their front row (work) is very impressive but their back row is so solid," said Westwood. "They're absolutely two of (the best) if not the best passers in the province. Their defence is fantastic."
Westgate, with a high school enrollment of about 200, is the smallest school competing at the AAAA final four.
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By rule, the Wings would normally compete at the AAA level but they have opted in to the higher level, setting up Saturday's semifinal matchup with Steinbach. With many of the same players two years ago, the Sabres took the provincial JV boys title from Westgate in a thrilling five-set marathon.
"Ever since then I think lots of our guys have been kind of looking at this as a goal," said Ludwig. "We want to go and get this banner for our school."
This season Westgate swept Steinbach in both conference meetings and Westwood is confident her players are well-prepared for the big stage.
"They feel good about the prep that we've done," said Westwood. "And that we've gotten tons of competition, lots of tight third or fifth sets and I think they feel like they've got a definitely a good chance this weekend."
Mike Sawatzky Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.