This season ended almost like the last one. There was a conference title, there were high hopes for nationals but in the end there were only hollow eyes and tear-stained cheeks.
Last year, team captain Amanda Moppett hid her face in a hoodie after the Dinos women's volleyball team dropped their opening match to the University of Toronto. The second seed lost to the seventh seeded Blues at nationals-a memory that pushed them all year long.
The team got stronger. They lifted weights, trained and played over the summer. They made it back. This time, Calgary had the first seed and the best attack in the country. Krista Kinsman tore through the Canada West Conference in her fifth and final year and looked hungry for redemption. Alisa Marriott regained her health and looked ferocious in the playoffs. Moppett seemed to lose her playfulness at times, painfully aware of the seriousness of her task. There were days when Calgary looked unstoppable. On those days, their middle was impregnable and their defence was flawless.
They could still remember when the ball pounded the floor with an overwhelming thud last year. The crowd rose with a deafening roar and applauded the blur of black and gold jerseys milling around centre court. Seeing the host team win in their own gym was exciting. Spectators lived and died with each point, especially in the fourth and deciding set of the match. But the Dinos just watched from the stands. Two days before, Calgary's hopes were squashed and the second-ranked team was relegated to the sidelines for the final game.
The University of Manitoba won it all then, and this year, they won it all once more. They did it with the same steady core of players, built around the middle attack of Canadian Interuniversity Sport Most Valuable Player Kathy Preston. Preston was outstanding in the finals against Sherbrooke a year ago and duplicated that performance against the Dinos in 2002. Consistency is key for Manitoba, and while Calgary's fiery attitude is more fun to watch, consistency proved more important. The Dinos led in every set of the final match, but they lost 3--1. They had a 20--16 lead in the first set of the nationally televised final but they could only watch in disbelief when Tammy Mahon pounded the ball down for a 27--25 win.
They dropped the second set too. They took an early lead only to lose it to the surging Bisons. The scoreboard read 25--19 Manitoba. Kinsman's back-row attacks worked but not much else did. Libero Erin Turner was subbed out and Tara Deeks came in. Rookie Natalie Schwartz entered the game at setter where she'd played well all year long. Just a day before, she was taken out in the semifinals against Sherbrooke in favour of veteran Heather Wearmouth. The move worked in the semis-the team came from behind and Head Coach Kevin Boyles looked brilliant. In the final, Boyles tried to breathe life into his squad once more.
The third set was a rollercoaster. The Dinos took a six-point lead only to let it go halfway through the game. Later, they took a 20--16 lead but let that go too. Finally, two huge blocks from middles Tracy Keats and Jill Friend propelled Calgary to victory. The match stood at 2--1.
The fourth set proved to be the end. Again the momentum swung and the missed opportunities multiplied. Calgary's players were jumping out of their shoes with each huge block and almost looked loose again. But Manitoba kept clawing back. Every emotional Calgary rally was matched by a quick point for the Bisons. Eventually, the game was tied at 20 and the season came down to one last race to five points.
In the end, the Bisons remained the National Champions. On the last ball of the match, Kathy Preston sent the Calgary players running, frantically trying to make one last dig. Tammy Mahon personified Manitoba's consistency and was the tourney's Most Valuable Player. The Bisons showed for the second year in a row they were the best in the country. Once more, the Dinos watched from the other side of the court.
This time, they waited to receive their silver medals, having to share their tears with a national audience while a mob of black and gold cheered on the other side of the net.
After the game, it was Marriott and Kinsman who hid in their hoodies. Most of the players will be back for another try but this was the last chance for the two fifth-year stars. For the first time in months, both looked shaken after a game. Their teammates were sad, but coherent enough to hug their families and talk to reporters. Kinsman and Marriott were not. They must have realized that this was the end.
Calgary won a silver medal. Eventually, they'll hang it up and they'll be proud. Most will win medals again-some with the Dinos, some on the beach, others on the national team. But the taste of that day will remain. It was almost victory, and not quite defeat.