Gaels exceed expectations

Women’s volleyball team surprises with OUA title

Outside hitter Becky Billings was the Gaels’ MVP against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in Hamilton on March 2.
Outside hitter Becky Billings was the Gaels’ MVP against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in Hamilton on March 2.
Photo: 
Fourth-year outside hitter Natalie Gray goes for a hit against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds at the CIS championship in Hamilton on March 2.
Fourth-year outside hitter Natalie Gray goes for a hit against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds at the CIS championship in Hamilton on March 2.
Photo: 

Back in October, nobody thought the women’s volleyball team would become Ontario champions.

After losing 10 players in the off-season, a 12-rookie team went 2-8 in preseason play. Before the opening game of the OUA regular season, head coach Joely Christian-Macfarlane said her team’s goal was simple: get better every game.

But four months later, the Gaels finished the OUA regular season at 13-5 before winning three straight playoff games to become Ontario champions and qualify for the team’s first-ever appearance at nationals.

Outside hitter and co-captain Natalie Gray was named a second-team all-Canadian, winning the Thérèse Quigley award for volleyball, academics and community service. Outside hitter and co-captain Becky Billings earned second-team OUA all-star status.

According to Billings, the team’s success was no fluke — the Gaels did early morning fitness sessions all season.

“We didn’t have any outcome goals, we just focused on improving each game,” she said. “All our hard work in the gym and off the court really helped us in our fitness.”

Billings said she hadn’t seen such a strong team dynamic in her previous three seasons as a Gael.

“The team atmosphere that we built this year is something that the program had been trying to achieve for the last couple years,” she said. “No one was selfish and everyone wanted success for the team.”

The Gaels started the season at 3-1 and entered the holiday break 6-3 — in 2012, they went 7-2 to clinch third place in the OUA.

In the playoffs, Queen’s swept the Brock Badgers in a quarter-final at the ARC before beating the University of Toronto Varsity Blues 3-2 and the Ottawa Gee-Gees 3-1 at the OUA final four in Ottawa to claim their first-ever provincial championship.

“Toronto really pushed us and we should’ve closed it out earlier, but we were patient and found a way to win the game,” Billings said. “Then beating Ottawa in their own gym was amazing.”

At nationals, the seventh-seeded Gaels were drawn against the four-time defending champion University of British Columbia Thunderbirds — UBC beat Queen’s in straight sets en route to winning its fifth consecutive title.

Queen’s lost to the Trinity Western Spartans 3-0 in Saturday’s consolation semifinal to close out the tournament.

Despite two straight-set losses, head coach Joely Christian-Macfarlane said the CIS championship was still a success because the Gaels played tough against the country’s best teams.

“We went in and played with them, which I knew that we could do,” she said. “The fact that both UBC and Trinity Western never took their starters off the court against us said a lot that they respected our abilities.”

Christian-Macfarlane, who took over the women’s volleyball program in 2007, said this was the best Queen’s team she’s ever coached.

“From a program perspective, I’ve had a lot of talent over the last couple of years,” she said. “But this was the most solid team that we’ve ever had.”

Christian-Macfarlane said she knew her team was a serious OUA contender after the Gaels came from behind to beat the Gee-Gees 3-2 at the ARC on Jan. 27.

“The high point was the five-set match here against Ottawa, being down 2-1 and coming back to win that match,” she said. “It was at that moment that I knew for sure that we were going to win this year.”

With Gray and Billings the only players set to graduate, Christian-Macfarlane said she expects to build on this season’s success in the coming years.

“It took five years to change the culture around to winning an OUA championship,” she said. “Now it’s changing the culture again and making [the players] recognize that the OUA championships are a stepping stone to the larger stage.

“We’re going to look at starting next season with the understanding that our goal is to be bigger and to continue to grow so that it’s not just about the OUA and we’re a team on the national stage.”

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.