Sunday, May 04, 2008

Volleyball: Playing with the big boys

Here's one of my stories from this weekend: check out the tournament site for more!

In the men’s 18U division, one of the 40 teams is not like the other 39. The 16U Ottawa Mavericks, a team composed of players two years younger than most of their competition, were a last-minute addition to the tournament after another team withdrew unexpectedly.

“Due to the withdrawal of one of the Ontario teams that was driving, we had a vacancy,” Tournament Competitions Chair Brenda Willis said, adding that an unfilled spot would have meant a time-consuming process of redoing the tournament draw, difficult due to the late date of the withdrawal. “We were quite fortunate to have the 16U Mavericks step up and fill the vacancy, even though they’re two years younger. It’s a tremendous opportunity for them to improve, because they’re playing up. Hopefully, when they go out to their nationals in a week, it will all seem easy because the hitting will be lower and softer.”

Perhaps predictably, the Mavericks found playing against competition two years older to be a struggle at first. They lost their first match Friday 25-8, 25-12 to Bam (Calgary, AB). They improved in their second match against the Titans de Limoilou (Quebec City, Quebec), but still fell 25-14, 25-18. Their third match of the day seemed a foregone conclusion to many, as they were facing the Fraser Valley Volleyball Club Blue squad, who came into the weekend as the second-seeded 18U men’s team after winning the British Columbia provincial championships.

Strange things sometimes happen in sports, though. The Mavericks came out with determination, and shockingly claimed the first set 25-22. Despite an early deficit in the second set, they bounced back and took a 19-15 lead. For a moment, it seemed as if the unthinkable might happen. However, the Blue rallied after a timeout to win the second set 26-24, and then claimed a 15-11 victory in the third set.

Despite the loss, Mavericks’ head coach François St-Denis said he was thrilled with his team’s great performance against the Blues, which he chalked up to their execution of the game’s fundamentals.

“These are 16U boys playing in an 18U event,” he said. “I just had to tell the guys not to be blown away by the quality of the big event, just to try and take care of the little things. We had a bit of a hard time doing that the first two matches, but the third match was kind of set up for that. I told them, ‘You know, guys, we’re playing against the top team in the pool, but hey, it’s still the same story: it’s a volleyball team, we’ve got to take care of our serving, our passing and our defence.’ They actually did that very well, and it was very enjoyable for me.”

Outside hitter Marc Bégin said the team’s already learned a lot from the weekend, and is preparing to make more of an impact on the tournament in the next years when they play opponents their own age.
“It’s a good experience,” he said. “By the time we get up to that age, we’ll be ready.”

The Mavericks continued their improvement today. They lost a close 25-20, 25-17 first match to the Rhinos (Bonnyville, AB), but picked up their first win of the weekend with a thrilling 25-23, 23-25, 15-10 victory over RVC (Lloydminster, AB). Their next match is at 12:15 p.m. against Canuck Aikido (Calgary) on Court 4 at the Cégep de l’Outaouais.

The Mavericks will be competing in the 2008 East Canadian 14/15/16U Open from May 9-11, which takes place in Moncton, NB. St-Denis said the experience the team gains from playing at a higher level of competition this weekend should help them in that tournament.

“All year, we’ve been our own worst enemies,” he said. “We’ve been lacking intensity, or not working hard: the last month, it’s been that. I think this weekend will help with that. ... It’s going to be a phenomenal weekend.”

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