Volleyball brings home OUA crown

Defeats Ryerson 2-0 in best-of-three series to advance to CIS championships

Men’s volleyball celebrates their OUA championship in Bartlett Gym.
Men’s volleyball celebrates their OUA championship in Bartlett Gym.
Photo courtesy of Don Empey / www.pbase.com/don_empey_photography

For the Queen’s men’s volleyball team, what began at Ryerson in a flurry of foam fingers and screaming Rams fans ended last Thursday on home court to the cheers of 600 boisterous Queen’s supporters.

For the first time in four years the team succeeded last week in bringing home the OUA banner. The title also marked the first OUA banner for Queen’s this season.

The Golden Gaels needed only two matches of the best-of-three series to defeat the top-ranked Ryerson Rams.

The victory was sweetened by the fact that Queen’s had not beaten Ryerson during the regular season, but head coach Brenda Willis said that all other matches were forgotten upon entering the final.

“The playoffs are a new season,” she said. “The fact that we had lost four to [Ryerson] this season meant nothing. We were done looking back.”

The Gaels’ progress is evident throughout the season, they lost to the Rams first in straight sets, then in four.

Willis said preparation for the OUA final began with a close examination of the Rams’ offensive and defensive tendencies. The pattern of their opponents’ setting allowed the Gaels to tailor their defence to the matchup.

“They certainly were more predictable than us,” Willis said.

The coaches’ main focus was defending against Ryerson’s star hitter Ryan Vandenburg, nicknamed “Snake” for his lanky, 6’10” frame. Willis said the Rams’ heavy reliance on the skills of one player gave Queen’s a great advantage. Queen’s blockers spent the week prior to the match simulating blocking the left-handed Vandenburg’s attack. Willis’ plan involved rotating her starting lineup on the court to set up a head-to-head between Vandenburg and Queen’s 6’8” middle Adam Simac.

The Gaels jumped out to quick leads in all three sets, leading 16-10 at the second technical timeout of each set.

Ryerson threw a wrench into the plan when it rearranged its own lineup, pitting Vandenburg against Ryan McCracken. But Willis said she could not have been more pleased with the outcome of the change.

“McCracken probably had the game of his career,” she said.

Queen’s went on to win the match for a final score of 3-0 (25-23, 25-20, 25-21). Willis said she was also thrilled with her team’s defensive performance, which gave the scorers the chance to secure the points needed to win. “The defence, led by Steve Willis, was up for the challenge,” she added.

The number of kills made by each team’s leading scorers were similar but the defensive stats spoke volumes.

“The most dramatic difference was in the number of digs made,” Willis said.

Queen’s made at least five more digs in the match than Ryerson.

The Gaels then entered what was to be their final match of the season on the OUA circuit with much the same strategy as they did the first match of the series. Willis said she contemplated a change in defensive strategy but decided to stick with what worked.

The team renewed its focus on staying internal to the team and within the moment and two days later they stepped up to face Ryerson on home court.

“[The Gaels] came out completely undistracted and ready to play,” she said.

The Gaels hit a snag in the form of a dislocated finger on the hand of Simac, but experience in the area proved to be an asset for the men. Willis said Nick Gralewicz stepped up once again and did an admirable job of maintaining the team’s flow.

“We really didn’t miss a beat,” she said.

After the Gaels took the second set, Ryerson, one step away from elimination, resorted to removing themselves from the gym, away from the excited Queen’s fans, to attempt to regroup. The move paid off in the short term, seeing the Rams to a win in the third, but their happiness was short-lived.

The Gaels huddled up and were back on track in no time. Though Ryerson was up 8-6 at the first technical time out, Queen’s quickly took the upper hand at 11-10 and held on for a hard-fought win and well-deserved title by a final score of 3-1 (25-18, 25-20, 21-25, 25-23).

Willis said the whole team appreciated the dedication of the crowd that packed Bartlett gym Thursday night.

“We’ve been saying all year that it’s been like having an extra player, and they didn’t let us down,” she said.

All parties agreed that preparation played a huge role in the Gaels’ convincing win.

“We talked about just staying together mentally and physically,” Willis said.

She added the men kept to their ritual of coming together after each point, good or bad, to praise each other or offer encouragement.

Outside hitter Andrew Bridgeman said that uniting after each play really helped keep up the intensity of the match. He also credits his coaches with helping the team believe they could be the best.

“We all hoped, but [assistant coach Jason Kinoshita] just put it out there all the time,” he said.

Steve Willis said that things like video sessions of previous matches helped prepare the men for all contingencies.

“We had a very distinct game plan,” he said. “Nothing really caught us by surprise.”

Willis’ performance this season was rewarded with the OUA Libero of the Year award. Four other Queen’s players were also recognized for their achievement: setter Devon Miller was named a first team All-Star; middle Simac and outside Dan McCrae were both named second team All-Stars; and Stu Hamilton was named to the All-Rookie team. Miller also led the CIS in total assists made.

But it’s not over yet. The Gaels left for Hamilton Wednesday night to compete at the CIS championships. They have earned the seventh seed in the tournament and will look to make some upsets beginning today.

As for pressure, Bridgeman says the team’s underdog status relieves almost all of it.

“We’ll be able to play freely—the pressure is on [the other teams],” he said.

Steve Willis, the only member of the team to ever have played at that level, agreed that a trip to nationals can’t help but be a positive thing.

“It’s just going to be some more good competition to prepare us for next year,” he said.

Coach Willis said that in spite of the higher level of competition they will face in Hamilton, it all comes down to playing their game, just as they do for every match of the year. In the end, she said, “it’s just about a nine-by-nine court.”

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