By Joanna Wynn
In March, 2004 the Dinos women’s volleyball team fought their way to the top, winning the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Women’s Volleyball Championship in Saskatoon, SK with sweat and tears.
In the 2004-2005 pre-season, there was some concern when the Dinos lost all three games they played against the always competitive University of Alberta Pandas. Losing two key players, Amanda Moppet and Jill Friend, to graduation last year, the new recruits needed to step up to the plate, and they were looking pretty good.
The season began, and not only did the rookies step up, but the Dinos were simply invincible. Winning game after game, it seemed like this team was unbeatable. Even the Pandas faced defeat in every match up this season, including the Canada West finals hosted by our Dinos in February this year. They went into nationals Mar. 3-6 with a perfect 24-0 record and were the favorites to take the gold.
This looked good for Dinos Head Coach Kevin Boyles’s early season goal: “To win it all again.”
Day 1: Dinos vs. Host team; University of Saskatchewan Huskies
The first game of the championship was almost painful to watch as the host Huskies were shredded by the top-ranked Dinos.
The first set saw the Dinos come out hard, immediately taking a commanding 8-1 lead over the scrambling Huskies. The gap between the teams only seemed to grow from there, with the Dinos at one point having a 20-11 lead. With strong play by CIS Women’s Volleyball Player of the Year, Joanna Niemczewska, the Dinos finished off the set with a solid 25-14 win.
The second set, the Huskies again fell behind. Thanks to the Dinos’ superb serving and solid defence, our ladies quickly earned a 9-5 lead. The Huskies fought back to bridge the gap to 10-8, but it wasn’t enough to slow the hard hitting Dinos, who picked up the pace to take the set 25-19.
At the start of the third, the Huskies were showing signs of life and took the lead 4-0, but it was short-lived as the Dinos fought back with a convincing 19-4 run to eventually slaughter the host 25-16.
Despite playing a low ranked team, the Dinos were poised and gave it their best.
“You can’t really underestimate a team,” rookie Julie Young explained. “We just had to stay focused.”
Leading the pack of Dinos was Niemczewska with 11 kills followed by Sarah “Pipes” Onofrychuk with 10. A solid win now under their belt, the Dinos were feeling pretty good going into the semi-final match.
Day 2: Dinos vs. University of British Columbia Thunderbirds
The Dinos entered their match against the fourth-ranked T-Birds–a team they defeated twice during the regular season–feeling confident and looking good.
The first set started with an ace serve by UBC, but the Dinos brushed it off and surged ahead, helped by great play from fifth-year middle, Reid Brodie and fourth-year setter, Natalie Schwartz. The set was taken by the Dinos 25-21, putting them two sets away from the national final for a second consecutive year.
The second set turned the game around however, as the T-Birds jumped ahead thanks to amazing blocking and some sloppy Dinos receptions. The T-Birds took a two point lead, only to have the Dinos fight back to tie it up at 15. Strong hitting by UBC put them ahead to finish the set with a 25-20 win.
The third set was heartbreaking to watch, as it seemed our Dinos simply fell apart and couldn’t get it back together.
“It’s like Jekyll and Hyde, they’ll have an amazing point and then throw it away,” one fan summarized.
UBC was leading 9-3 when the Dinos seemed to be coming back with three straight points. Then came what seemed like a never-ending streak of success by the T-Birds. Despite some great play by Young and Brodie, the Dinos just couldn’t catch up. The T-Birds took the set 25-16 to gain a one set lead.
Never a team to go down without a fight, everyone in the Dinos’ cheering section expected them to come back in the fourth to bring the game to five sets. But that was not how it all went down.
With what seemed to be an impenetrable wall of blocking by the taller T-Birds, the Dinos hitters couldn’t seem to finish, and the T-Birds were definitely not having the same problem.
With the game tied at 18, a great save by Young popped the Dinos back into the lead. UBC however, was on a mission. Following some huge smashes by the T-Birds’ All-Canadian player Emily Cordonier, there was silence among Dinos fans as the scoreboard read 25-23. Our beloved team faced their first loss of the season, 3-1.
The Dinos saw amazing play from Niemczewska and Brodie with 13 kills apiece, with rookies Lauren Perry and Young contributing a phenomenal 11 and nine kills as well as 13 and 14 digs respectively. But it just wasn’t enough.
“We got beat,” commented Boyles on Friday’s mistakes. “That was the best UBC played all year. We played good, but not national champion great.”
As tears flowed on both sides–UBC in shock and excited about advancing to the finals, and the Dinos deep in defeat–the realization hit that Calgary would not win their second consecutive national title.
“[The mood was] disappointing, I mean we didn’t achieve what had intended: To win the gold again,” described a baffled Onofrychuk.
“We had to play the next day and we knew that, so we were sad, but we had to push it from our minds,” said an optimistic Niemczewska, a leader on and off the court.
Day 3: Dinos vs. Pandas
Though dreams of the gold were not to come true this season, the Dinos pulled it together for one last stand in the bronze medal game against the Pandas. Always a heated match up, the battle of Alberta was still highly anticipated by the newly revived Dinos.
“I’m over it, at least we get to play Alberta and it still means something; we’re going to give it everything we’ve got,” promised Niemczewska prior to the game.
And giv’er they did.
The first set had fans on the edge of their seats as the Pandas battled for the lead. They broke an 18-18 tie with solid kills as well as some errors on the Dino front to take the set 25-20.
The second set however, the Dinos came out strong, but the game was again back and forth between the two teams, reaching a 19-19 tie. With an untouchable kill by Niemczewska, followed by another by Janelle Findlay, the Dinos took the set 25-23.
The third set saw the Dinos out in full force. Despite an early 10-7 Panda lead, the Dinos went on an amazing nine-point run, bringing the score to 16-10. Phenomenal play by player of the game Brodie pushed the Dinos forward to a 25-17 win.
The fourth was another battle with neither team edging out the other by more than two points until the Dinos followed through to take the set 25-22 and the game 3-1. With a game high 20 kills, Niemczewska led the Dinos, also racking up 11 digs. Brodie and Young contributed 13 and 10 kills apiece, with Young also achieving a game high 20 digs.
Boyles attributed the recovered success to “giving the game significance” even though it wasn’t the 8 p.m. final they’d hoped for.
Another factor driving the team was that no one wanted to see graduating players, Robyn Horner, Onofrychuk and Brodie, finish on a loss.
Despite the disappointment of Friday’s loss, the Dinos felt good about Saturday.
“To go out on a win with bronze is pretty good,” Onofrychuk said.
And with a downright remarkable 26-1 record, our Dinos still look good.
The New National Champs
Though UBC managed to bump the Dinos out in the semi-final round, they didn’t have enough left to take the gold from the undefeated Sherbrooke University Vert et Or. In a phenomenal display of athletic ability the two teams faced off Saturday night, with Sherbrooke reigning supreme.
Having two national team players as well as an Olympic beach player, Sherbrooke simply outplayed UBC. The game was won in three straight sets, 25-22, 25-19, 25-23.
Would the Dinos have been able to bring down the Vert et Or had they been given the chance? I guess we’ll never know, but as Onofrychuk said; “it would have been so much fun to play against them.”
Maybe next year ladies!
Looking ahead to next year
The significant loss of the Dinos middles could be a threat, but this team is out for blood, and next year’s nationals come home to Calgary.
Is the team out for revenge on UBC?
“Oh yeah!” Niemczewska grins.
With this year’s rookie successes Perry and Young, as well as some fresh meat coming in, the Dinos are already looking ahead to next year’s gold.