Men's volleyball close season empty-handed

31-year coach Brenda Willis sends program off in high spirits 

The Gaels lost both of their games this weekend.
The Gaels lost both of their games this weekend.
Photo by Rich Zazulak

The men’s volleyball team’s remarkable mid-season turnaround to reach the U Sports National Championship finally came to an end this past weekend in Hamilton.  

The Gaels closed their season with a quarterfinal 3-1 loss to the nationally-ranked second Alberta Golden Bears and a 3-0 consolation semi-final defeat to the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds. 

Despite coming away from the tournament empty-handed, Queen’s head coach Brenda Willis said her players “added credibility to the program in the way [they] competed.” 

Friday’s match versus Alberta saw the Gaels fall behind 2-0 before they found their footing in the third set. 

“I think, initially, there was a bit of nerves and we didn’t play great in the first two sets,” Willis, who is now retired after a 31-year career at Queen’s, said. “And then it was, like, ‘O.K., we have nothing to lose, so let’s just settle down and play disciplined.’” 

The Gaels took the third set 25-19 and looked to have the upper hand on their opponent in the fourth when, up 23-21, they were two points away from forcing a fifth and final set. Unfortunately for Queen’s, the Golden Bears rallied back. They scored four consecutive points to win the set 25-23 and match 3-1. 

“We were in a position to win it,” Willis said of the fourth set. “We just made a few unforced errors that you can’t take back [and] were a bit uncharacteristic of our team.” 

The coach added “people were surprised at how competitive” her team was against Alberta, particularly when considering the ranking discrepancy between both teams. 

“Based on the volleyball ranking system — the equation that’s used to [calculate] top 10 teams — Alberta was [second best] and we were in the mid-20s, so everyone expected it to be a blowout,” she said. 

Much of the same followed in the Gaels’ 3-0 consolation semi-finals loss to UNB. Although prepared to play their opponents, Willis said the loss was because of her team’s shortcomings. 

“We lost two really close sets and that just kind of took the wind out of the sails,” she said. “I guess that’s kind of been a nemesis for us … unforced errors at critical times, sometimes going for too much or being too tentative.”

A lack of hardware this season for the Gaels doesn’t takeaway from their successes and deserved recognition. Before winning five consecutive matches to close their regular season, Queen’s record was 4-5 and the team was on the fringe of the playoff picture. 

Willis said her team set their own destiny — “and when you can do that … it’s inspiring.” 

“That’s what we talked about, what we needed to do,” Willis recalled what she told her players before they went on their five-game winning streak  to end the season. “It came down to a changed outlook. It was about helping each other be right and pushing each other to be better. And that set a tone for the latter part of our regular season.” 

The Gaels’ now-vacant head coaching position is appealing for reasons that extend beyond the court. 

“These jobs are hard to come by and there’s only less than 30 in the whole country,” Willis said. She added other Canadian athletic departments aren’t as supportive of high-performance sport as Queen’s. “You can’t come with too many negatives on a checklist for a coach here.” 

With 12 of its 17 players currently in their first or second year at Queen’s, the team’s roster also presents a promising source of youth. Now she’s retired, Willis hopes to leave the program she’s shaped and managed for three decades in steady hands. 

“I wanted to leave the roster is solid shape so my successor, whoever that might be, can pick up the reigns and move it forward.” 

“And I’m really pleased that’s what we’ve done.”

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