It was a script even Hollywood couldn't have come up with. After winning back-to-back five set thrillers, the Dinos men's volleyball team claimed their first Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship since 1993, and fourth overall, on Sunday with a win over the Trinity Western University Spartans.
The season certainly had its ups and downs, but it couldn't have finished in a better way for a team whose confidence only seemed to grow as they went deeper into the tournament.
In the opening match against the Dalhousie University Tigers, things weren't looking too good after the first two sets. The Dinos found themselves facing an early 2-0 deficit, only one loss away from an early exit from the CIS tournament.
With the season on the line, the Dinos needed a spark to ignite what seemed an improbable comeback. Coach Rod Durrant claims he said nothing in between the second and third sets, but a fifth-year veteran rallied the troops.
"Tom Porta stepped up and said a lot," said Durrant. "His statement to the group was really significant and it set the tone for the next three sets."
In what would become a theme for the weekend, the Dinos stood in the face of adversity and stepped up their game when it was needed the most. The team came roaring back, taking the third and fourth sets convincingly by scores of 25-20 and 25-19, to set up a dramatic fifth set. With the Dinos up 15-14, the stage was set for Curtis James, who ended the marathon match with a service ace.
It was without question a character-building win for the Dinos, giving them loads of confidence heading into their semi-final match with the archrival University of Alberta Golden Bears.
"The win created a lot of belief and a lot of momentum," said Durrant.
The Golden Bears came in as favourites, being the two-time defending CIS champions, but the Dinos were out to ensure that there would be a new champion this time around. The team came out with a much better start, taking the first set, but dropped the next two to find themselves in a familiar situation facing elimination with their backs against the wall.
Graham Vigrass recorded nine of his game high 26 kills in the fourth set and recorded the last four points for the team as the Dinos were able to squeeze out a 25-23 victory, setting up yet another decisive fifth set. With the team trailing 13-11 they once again elevated their play at the most opportune time, winning the set's final four points to steal yet another match from their opponent.
As the Dinos swarmed the court to celebrate, it was another fifth-year veteran who sternly reminded the team that their end goal had yet to be reached.
"This is not over," Pat Lenaour repeated over and over to his team. As happy as the team was to knock off the defending champs, they knew their end goal was yet to be reached.
For a team with no previous experience in the CIS tournament, the Dinos players showed great poise in what was the biggest game of their CIS careers. To add to the pressure, upwards of 500 rowdy fans from TWU made the trip up to Kamloops to support their team. Durrant has talked all year to his team about bringing a "10" performance when they needed it the most.
"To me that was as close to a 10 performance as possible. I thought we handled [the pressure] tremendously," said Durrant. "We couldn't have asked for any better."
The Dinos took the final in four sets, finally reaching the goal they set out to accomplish at the beginning of the season.
Vigrass was the standout player for the Dinos throughout the tournament, and he took home the MVP honours. His stats were remarkable, as he averaged 4.43 kills per set and was selected as player of the match twice, including in the final.
Jay Blankenau was named to the tournament all-star team, and players such as James, Oleg Podporin and David Egan all had strong showings for the Dinos. Durrant was quick to praise each of his players and said the feeling when they won was so great it was hard to put in words.
"It was pure joy for 22 of us who had worked really hard all year," he said.
The Dinos seemed to be in trouble a little over a month ago after back-to-back losses late in the regular season to the Brandon University Bobcats. Following the games, the team held a players-only meeting to try to, as Egan put it, "right the ship" before heading into the playoffs. There is no question that from then on the "ship" was headed in a completely different direction. It was a path that eventually led the team to CIS glory.