For the second time in as many years, the Golden Bears Volleyball team are national champions. Unfortunately for the Pandas, they came up just short for the second time in two weeks.
The Bears dominated their way through CIS Nationals in Saskatoon last weekend, beating the Waterloo Warriors, Dalhousie Tigers, and Trinity Western Spartans in straight sets. The Pandas made easy work of the Ottawa Gee-Gees and Toronto Blues last weekend in Toronto, but were stopped in five sets in the gold medal match by Trinity Western — the same team they lost Canada West gold to.
“We were able to step up our level, stick together and play our best volleyball when it really counted the most,” Golden Bears third year setter Brett Walsh said.
Step up they did, as the Bears didn’t lose a single set in their three game run to the eighth Tantramar Trophy in program history.
Their first match saw them face the OUA runners-up from Waterloo. Theoffence-by-committee mentality saw Ryan Nickifor lead the Bears with eleven kills, while Kevin Proudfoot and Ryley Barnes were a close second with nine apiece. Combined with their extraordinary 0.388 team kill efficiency, the Bears committed fewer unforced errors and maintained a strong block. Leading the charge was middle Taylor Arnett, who had five blocks to go along with seven kills on the night. Dominance all over the court saw the Bears take the match in straight sets.
Riding the momentum from their quarterfinal win, the Bears took on the Dalhousie Tigers. Though a hotly contested match, the Bears always seemed to have the edge when it counted, and assistant coach Brock Davidiuk credits their defence for this success.
“We outdug Dalhousie in the semifinal and they’re a ball-control team, so that was really big,” he said. “I thought our guys really found ways to be competitive; and that’s a big part of performing under pressure at the big show.”
In addition to the defensive performance, consistency from the serve line and a spread offence meant that Dalhousie seemed to be a half-step behind all evening. Unable to contain the Bears, the Tigers fell 3-0, giving the green and gold their second straight-sets win.
With their barely one-week-old Canada West Final victory over Trinity Western fresh in their minds, the Bears set about repeating their performance. With a strong block containing the two-time CIS Player of the Year Nick Del Bianco to a meagre twelve kills, the Bears set the tone for the match early. They blasted away from a 16-16 score to win the first set 25-19. Continuing to dominate the offensive side of the game, Proudfoot, Nickifor, and Barnes each had double-digit point totals on the evening, utterly demoralizing the Spartans en route to a 3-0 win.
Although the Bears dominated the tournament, Wlash believes the team’s greatest strength is its balance and depth.
“It’s funny, I think there isn’t one specific area of our game that is better than anybody else,”Wlash said. “I think that we have a balanced team and a lot of different weapons, it gave a lot of teams a lot of trouble.”
Going into the next season, the Bears will boast the same starting lineup, and maintain their perennial-contender status in the CIS.
“When it comes down to the volleyball, having that much time spent together I think is a really big part of our success,” Daviduk said.
Davidiuk also acknowledges that the team will have a target on their back as two-time defending CIS champs, but welcomes the opportunity.
“When you’re the ‘overdog,’ you have to find a way to sustain a high level of play all the time,” he said. “What we try to instil in the guys is to never take a break regardless of circumstance or who’s on the other side of the court.”
On the other side, the Pandas came within a hair of winning their first CIS championship in eight years last weekend. After a dominant performance against Ottawa in the first round, a very close win over Toronto and an even closer loss to Trinity Western meant the Pandas had to settle for a silver medal.
Up by two sets going into the third in the gold medal match, the Pandas appeared to be well on their way to victory. The Spartans, however, had other ideas.
“We got back on our heels when (Trinity Western) started to push harder,” head coach Laurie Eisler said. “We got beaten quite convincingly in the third and fourth sets.”
Facing a second-straight fifth set against the Spartans, the Pandas left it all on the court in the fifth, but fell to a veteran Trinity squad 15-11.
For Eisler, the growth of the program was apparent over the year, and she plans on using this loss as a learning experience for her team.
“You learn how to play in championships by playing in championships,” she said. “You learn from getting things exposed, both good and bad.”
Though her squad plans to take some time to heal and evaluate their respective futures on the team, Eisler is excited about what’s to come.
“They’re pretty tapped out right now, but we’ll recover and get back in the hunt for next year. Our goal is always to be in the position to contend for a national championship, and we’ll do our best to get there.”