Gaels out for national honours

Men’s volleyball team in hunt for first-ever CIS title in Kamloops, B.C.

Middle hitter Michael Amoroso spikes the ball against Guelph in the OUA gold medal game.
Middle hitter Michael Amoroso spikes the ball against Guelph in the OUA gold medal game.
Supplied Photos by Christopher Chang
The men’s volleyball team celebrate winning their first OUA title since 2007. The win booked the Gaels’ tickets to the CIS Championships in Kamloops.
The men’s volleyball team celebrate winning their first OUA title since 2007. The win booked the Gaels’ tickets to the CIS Championships in Kamloops.
Supplied Photos by McMaster Silhouette

The men’s volleyball team refused to settle for a third-straight OUA silver medal last weekend.

After losing the previous two OUA finals, the Gaels completed two comeback victories to earn their first provincial gold since 2007. The wins earned the team a trip to Kamloops, B.C. to compete at the CIS Championships at Thompson Rivers University.

The Gaels beat the Western Mustangs in the semifinal and the Guelph Gryphons in the championship match.

Head coach Brenda Willis said in the days leading up to the championships her team was concerned with the host McMaster Marauders, who had defeated the Gaels in the OUA championships in the previous two years.

“I spent all week leading up to that game reminding the guys that we had one opponent in Western,” she said. “But for most of them that’s what the OUA final is—the Queen’s-Mac rivalry. I kept saying to the boys that there’s only one team in your universe and that’s Western. I don’t even want to think about Mac.”

The Marauders lost the Gryphons in semifinal action. Willis said the Marauders’ loss had a psychological effect on her team, who watched the game immediately before their game against the Mustangs.

“I had a sense that what had just unfolded had put them in a different place,” she said. “I wasn’t surprised in the start of our match that we were playing not to lose. If Guelph could beat McMaster then maybe Western could beat us.” The Gaels had beaten Western 3-1 in their previous meeting, but lost the first two sets of the semifinal. Willis said the team’s conditioning kept them in contention.

“After the first two sets we were thinking ‘If we’re going to go down, let’s go down swinging’,” she said. “Our fitness helped us. We got stronger as the game went on. And by the fifth set Western was playing not to lose.”

Fan support shifted against the Gaels during the championship match against the Gryphons on Saturday. Willis said Guelph fans equipped with pots and pans positioned themselves behind the Gaels’ bench throughout the game.

She said the pressure was a good experience for her team that will receive a similar welcome during their first game of the CIS championships today against the seventh-ranked Trinity Western Spartans.

The Gaels won the first set 25-22, but fell in the following two sets by the same score of 17-25. Losing the next set would have secured the Gaels their third silver medal showing in three years. The Gaels won the fourth set 25-22 and took the fifth set 15-13.

Outside hitter Niko Rukavina, who had 10 kills in the win against the Gryphons, was among the several athletes on the Ontario team that won silver in national competition over the summer. He said the potential of another silver medal was unacceptable.

“It was pretty much gold or go home,” he said. “That really gave us the push to pull through.”

The Gaels are seeded fifth entering into today’s CIS quarterfinal. The team was without a national ranking this season, but Willis said her team is still a contender.

“You don’t go to a national championship not thinking you’re going to win,” she said. “I don’t want to put Canada West teams on a pedestal. This year it’s wide open. The east teams are just as good.”

Teams from the Canada West division made up seven of the ten nationally ranked teams by the end of the season. Canada West teams have won the CIS championship each year since 1994. However the Laval Rouge et Or, who won in 1994, are the top ranked team in the country this year.

Willis said the Gaels didn’t receive national attention because they were missing Rukavina and setter Dan Rosenbaum early in the season and lost to nationally-respected Ontario teams, including a five-set loss to McMaster in their season opener.

“At this point we go in as an underdog, not being nationally ranked.”

She said Canada West teams are usually favoured in national competition because there are fewer teams in western provinces, so provincial junior volleyball programs feed their athletes into fewer schools.

Willis said the Gaels are on track to be a favourite when they host the CIS championships in 2012.

“We had a five-year plan with this generation of guys,” she said. “We’re on track... It’s reasonable that we make a statement and get some respect.”

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