Defending the crown

OUA champions take the court with new leadership casts

Nine players have departed from last year’s Gaels team, which finished fourth at the CIS championships.
Nine players have departed from last year’s Gaels team, which finished fourth at the CIS championships.
Rookie left side Brett Hagarty leads the Gaels’ recruiting class in 2012-13.
Rookie left side Brett Hagarty leads the Gaels’ recruiting class in 2012-13.
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Men

Head coach Brenda Willis said it last March, and her opinion hasn’t wavered since: the goal for this year’s men’s volleyball program is simply to make the playoffs.

For a team lacking veteran players, an OUA title repeat is far-sighted. But making the post-season gives them a shot — something Willis has accomplished in 25 of her 26 years as head coach.

“Once you make playoffs, anything can happen,” Willis said. “We’re still a very young group in terms of CIS experience.”

Fifth-year setter Jackson Dakin is the only returning starter. Filling the other roles is a work in progress.

“We’re settled in for the most part but we haven’t set roles definitively,” Willis said. “We’re deep in every position and it’s a really nice problem to have for a coach.”

Among the program’s graduated players are OUA player of the year and CIS All-Canadian Joren Zeeman, OUA libero of the year Niko Rukavina and fellow OUA All-Star Mike Amoroso.

Now, an increased workload is in store for several returnees, who contributed in bursts to last year’s success. Third-year libero Jacob Glantz returns with much-needed playoff experience.

“[Glantz] saw minimal action last year, but critical action.” Willis said. “We’ll be looking to him and Jackson for some on-court leadership.”

If the young and inexperienced Gaels are helped by anything else, it’s their height. Two middle hitters are 6’7, and first-year middle Will Hoey stands at 6’11.

“I think in a long match particularly, they don’t have to work as hard to play high as the smaller guys,” Willis said. “Size takes its toll on the smaller guys who have to get themselves up there on every single ball.”

With the departure of high-scoring hitters Zeeman and Amoroso, second-year Mike Tomlinson is among the players expected to chip in with kills.

Tomlinson led the Gaels with 14 kills, two blocks, two digs and three aces in their final pre-season game, a 3-0 sweep over the Montreal Carabins.

“You know you’ve got big shoes to fill with Joren Zeeman, and I don’t expect [Tomlinson] to be player of the year, but he’s been great so far,” Willis said.

While the starting roster remains unconfirmed, returning hitters Philippe Goyer and Stephen Holmes will likely play key roles.

“It was clear cut who our top six or seven were in the last couple years, and everyone else had a role to fill within that,” Willis said. “In some cases, their role was just to get better and get ready to take over down the road.”

For a couple of those guys, that time has come.”

- Peter Morrow

Women

Last season, the women’s volleyball team turned a rebuilding period into a conference championship. This year’s team is striving to do the same.

The Gaels defied all expectations to claim last year’s OUA title, prevailing with a roster that featured 12 rookies. Their title defence will be incumbent on a new cast of leaders stepping up once again.

Libero Shannon Walsh and middle Katie Neville, both in their fourth season, will serve as team captains, while hitter Colleen Ogilvie returns for her fifth and final collegiate season.

Fourth-year setter Anna Pedjase was named to the tournament All-Star team at the pre-season Queen’s Invitational, alongside second-year hitter Alexandra Heine.

Queen’s leadership core will be tasked with replacing departed veterans Becky Billings and Natalie Gray — both of whom were named OUA All-Stars during the Gaels’ championship run.

Despite the loss of two decorated leaders, head coach Joely Christian-Macfarlane doesn’t expect her team to coast on their previous accomplishments.

“Last year’s team won a banner, so this year’s team needs to step up and hope that they can win a banner for themselves,” said Christian-Macfarlane, who’s entering her sixth season with the Gaels. “We need to get better with every match.”

The Gaels finished 6-7 overall in pre-season play, competing in exhibition tournaments at Ryerson, Winnipeg and Queen’s.

They squeezed out a five-set victory in their regular season opener on Saturday, squandering a 2-0 lead over the Lakehead Thunderwolves before securing the win in the final frame.

“I don’t think we played the [Lakehead] match with any real intensity,” Christian-Macfarlane said. “We had spurts of energy, but there was never a point where we controlled the match emotionally and physically.”

Queen’s top competition in 2012-13 will be the Ottawa Gee-Gees and the York Lions. The Gaels topped Ottawa 3-1 in last year’s OUA championship game, while York is looking to rebound after forfeiting last year’s quarter-final for using an ineligible player.

The Gaels’ most critical stretch will come on Jan. 27 and Feb. 2, when they’ll face Ottawa and York consecutively.

Christian-Macfarlane doesn’t foresee the Gaels suffering from any form of championship hangover.

“Every team we play wants to prove something,” she said. “We’ve spent five years being the underdogs in the OUA, and suddenly, you’re a winner.”

With files from Peter Morrow

- Nick Faris

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