End of an era for men's volleyball

Eight players set to graduate after fourth-place finish at nationals

Men’s volleyball co-captain Niko Rukavina (15) comtemplates the end of his Queen’s career after falling 3-1 to the Manitoba Bisons in the CIS bronze medal match on March 4 at the ARC.
Men’s volleyball co-captain Niko Rukavina (15) comtemplates the end of his Queen’s career after falling 3-1 to the Manitoba Bisons in the CIS bronze medal match on March 4 at the ARC.
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Middle hitter Mike Amoroso spikes against the Trinity Western Spartans on March 3 at the ARC.
Middle hitter Mike Amoroso spikes against the Trinity Western Spartans on March 3 at the ARC.
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For Joren Zeeman, there’s no solace in a fourth-place finish.

The men’s volleyball team is trying to come to terms with the outcome of last weekend’s CIS championship at the ARC — an event the Gaels had been anticipating for five years.

“I’m obviously proud to say we did the best the Queen’s men’s team has ever done,” Zeeman, a fifth-year All-Canadian, said, “but going into the season, going into our career, the goal all along was to get a medal.”

Queen’s hosted the eight-team, 11-game CIS men’s volleyball championship at the ARC last weekend. The Gaels were seeded fifth and upset the fourth-seeded University of Alberta Golden Bears in their quarter-final on Friday night, securing Queen’s first-ever spot in the CIS final four.

But the Gaels lost to the first-seeded Trinity Western Spartans in front of 1,994 fans on Saturday and fell to the second-seeded Manitoba Bisons in Sunday’s third-place match. The fourth-place finish means eight Queen’s players are ending their university careers with back-to-back losses and a missed shot at a CIS medal.

“Just for the last two games [against Trinity Western and Manitoba,] I thought we could have put a better showing in and probably won our last game and a medal,” Zeeman said.

Zeeman was part of the team’s five-person 2007 recruiting class that was supposed to contend for the 2012 national championship in their fifth-year.

“Five years?” Zeeman said. “Maybe I’m not far-enough removed. I guess time for reminiscing is still to come.”

This season, three of the fifth-years — Zeeman, captain Niko Rukavina and middle hitter Mike Amoroso — earned OUA all-star honours. But outside hitter Bryan Fautley and setter Dan Rosenbaum missed the season with long-term injuries.

Head coach Brenda Willis said those injuries threw off her plans.

“Every time you change your roster, you don’t have the same trust,” Willis said. “If I make a substitution, you’re hesitating. ‘Is he going to take that [ball] or am I?’”

The Gaels lost 3-0 to Trinity Western at the 2010 CIS championship in Thompson Rivers, B.C. When the two teams met again last Saturday, the Gaels had four new players in their lineup, while the Spartans only had two.

“I knew we’d have a tough time competing with Trinity,” Willis said. “They’re just bigger and smoother. That same core’s been together for three years.”

Willis said the lack of older players on her roster hurt her team during training as well. Instead of having Zeeman and Rukavina getting used to playing together, Willis had to put them on different practice squads because they were the only outside hitters who could push each other.

Willis said she was proud of the team’s season. The Gaels started the OUA regular season at 1-3 and went 5-4 in their first nine games. But they won seven of their last nine games and earned their first top-10 national ranking in the last week of the regular season.

Before last weekend, Willis said her goal was to beat Alberta in the first round — not just to secure Queen’s highest-ever CIS finish, but to give her team a chance to win a medal.

“It’s hard coming fourth because you play great, you make the final four, but then, if you lose your next two matches, even if you played great … you finish with a pair of losses,” she said. “It’s a mixed-emotions thing.”

Willis, who’s in her 25th year with the team, said she was proud of her eight graduating players.

“We had a lot of very gifted athletes and I think some of them had great careers,” she said, verging on tears. “[They] definitely pushed my coaching strategies to the next level ... I’m going to miss them.”

“[In] 25 years, you go through four or five generations at least and so I‘ve sort of become accustomed to building this and then starting over and saying goodbye and trying to stay in touch as alumni.”

Willis took a day off after the tournament to try to get used to not having a national championship to play for in the near future — her goal next season is to make the OUA playoffs.

“I took [Tuesday] off to catch up on laundry and vacuuming and all that,” she said. “Back to normal.”

But Willis is taking the team’s first- and second-years to play two exhibition games at Ryerson University this weekend — she said she’s doing it with next season in mind.

“It’s meant to be ‘You’ve been training all year and we need to get you some games and get you hungry for next season.’”

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