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Strong Finish despite tough trip

Logan Gagnon follows the ball as it pops up in front of her in the game against Trent.

BY KARL KOFMEL

There was a hum on the bus that hadn’t been there with this team in a while. A certain buzz that spoke of a group thrilled at the prospect of defending their reputation. As a No. 2 seed, the Algonquin

Thunder women’s volleyball team headed to Barrie, Ont. for the OCAA provincial championships from Feb. 23-25. The ride back home wouldn’t be as enjoyable after the Thunder did as well as they could, but not as well as they hoped.

From the beginning it wasn’t going to be easy for the Thunder. That comes with the territory when your first game is against a four-time runner up and perennial powerhouse.

“We’re playing one of the best teams in the province, Nipissing,” said head coach Everton Senior on the eve of the tournament.

Algonquin wasn’t about to be cowed by reputation. The feeling that pervaded the bus was one of excitement. For the first time in three years they were going to the playoffs.

After a short practice and a meeting on Wednesday night the women turned in in anticipation of the game and banquet the next morning. During the breakfast banquet in which all the teams were introduced, the awards were handed out. The Thunder were honoured with Jori Armishaw and Breann Wheeler earning second team eastern all-star and Emily Graham picking up a first team all-star spot.

“We’re all just really proud we made it,” said Jamie Bullbrook left/right side hitter. “We know we’ve got some tough games ahead and we’re underdogs, but we deserve to be there.”

For the past six years the championship game has been played between two western division teams and there was an air of eastern solidarity that surprised most of the players. During the warm-ups of the first game, the Trent Excalibur came onto the court to shag balls and show their support for their eastern counterparts.

“I’m good friends with two of the girls,” said power Jori Armishaw. “They said they were thinking of doing it and it was really nice of them to do that for us.”

“I loved it,” said Rachel Canavan right side/middle. “I was surprised by it. It’s great that we try and help each other out.”

From the beginning it was a disaster. After exchanging the first points, Nipissing imposed their will upon the Thunder.

“We got a little tentative,” said Everton. “You can’t do that against a team like that. You’ve got to take the shots when you get them. It’s their first time at provincials and it got the best of some.”

Algonquin lost the first set 25-10 and then found themselves immediately in the hole again in the second set, 8-2. They lost the set 25-13, but there was a noticeable improvement in the play of the Thunder. They used that momentum to give them their first lead of the game, 4-3.

“The energy was definitely up and we were confident,” said Canavan. “I was really into that set and I have no idea what happened at the end.”

“We could keep up with them, we just didn’t close it out,” said Paige Berath, middle.

You could see it in the eyes of the players that this was their chance to take it to a much stronger team. Nipissing had other ideas. They tied the game at 11, and then scored 14 of the next 18 points to win the final set 25-15. Emily Graham took player-of-the-game honours for Algonquin.

“I have no words,” said libero Logan Gagnon, who went on to say many words. “I was not focused, I was nervous and I was getting picked on. Not a good day. It’s not like they were an easy team.”

The team stuck around after to watch Trent take on Humber. Algonquin returned the favour and helped Trent in their warm-ups. The Excalibur lost the game and their next opponent would be: Algonquin.

“We’ll play a different game, but the starting line-up will be the same,” said Everton. “They’re familiar with us, we’re familiar with them. We’ve played them twice already.”

That intimacy allowed the Thunder to take it easy over dinner that night. Even after a tough loss they were able to laugh and tell stories, confident that tomorrow would be a better day.

“We know how they play,” remarked Bullbrook. “With a clean slate, we had to forget about Nipissing.”

What started as an even match where both teams were tied at four, turned terrible as Trent started to find holes in the Algonquin defence and took the first set 25-15.

“It made me want to fight even more just to show them who was the better team in the east,” Gagnon said as she smirked.

The Thunder jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the second set and held on to it to take it 25-21. The third set began close, but knowing that if they went down 1-2 they might not recover, Trent found a way to tie the game at 22. Algonquin called their final time out and devised a strategy to get those last three points. Brimming with confidence, the Thunder muscled their way to a 25-23 victory in the third set. The fourth set wasn’t even close. Now that the match was within their grasp, Algonquin punished Trent by going up to a quick 8-0, and then putting them out of their misery, 25-13. Bullbrook picked up the player-of-the-game as the Thunder moved on to the bronze semi-finals.

“We got here, we might as well bring home some hardware,” said Everton.

Since they were the first game of the day, Algonquin took a short break and then came back to watch the gold medal semi-finals. It was there that they took the time to scout out their next opponent, the Fanshawe Falcons.

“All deep serves, Everton,” piped up Gagnon on the bus. “Nothing short, I could see that.”

Algonquin jumped out ahead 4-0. They kept pace with the Falcons and slowly started pulling away with the first set. They led the game 20-13 before it all fell apart. Fanshawe shrugged off two Thunder attempts at slowing their momentum, tied the game at 24 and then finished off the set, 26-24.

“I was so hyped during that set,” explained Canavan. “I had two huge blocks and a couple of kills. I don’t understand how we didn’t close it out.”

Fanshawe worked their height advantage at the net and took a quick second set 25-17. Down 0-2, with their tournament on the line, the Thunder went out fighting. Early on, leading 4-0, they forced the Falcons to call their first time out of the match. What followed was a slow grinding down of Algonquin. They were good, very good, but just not good enough. The Thunder were able to keep up and keep it close, the game was tied up until 16, but in the end they couldn’t make it any further. The final score was 25-20 Fanshawe, and Gagnon received the player-of-the-game.

Those on the court came together for a brief hug, and the bench joined them soon after. Soberly, the women grabbed their bags. In the end, the women’s volleyball team put everything they had on the line and came out feeling good about it. Gagnon gave her trademark wide smile as she said, “Coming fifth overall in the province is pretty awesome.”

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