It was hardly the dominant run of years past, but the UBC Thunderbirds claimed their fifth-consecutive national women’s volleyball title at the expense of the Alberta Pandas on Sunday night.
Battling back from a two set to one deficit in front of a large and energized crowd at McMaster’s Burridge Gym, the Thunderbirds capped their comeback victory with a block on Alberta’s rookie standout Alena Omelchenko.
Final set scores were 25-21, 15-25, 19-25, 25-20, 15-12 in favour of the British Columbian outfit in what was a neck-and-neck encounter between the nation’s top two teams.
The opening frame saw the Pandas open an early lead at 10-6 as UBC began to misfire from the outside, and the Alberta squad would maintain that advantage at the technical timeout after an emotional single block brought the score to 16-13 in their favour.
The Thunderbirds would emerge the stronger from the timeout however, and after Omelchenko botched an attempted attack from the middle, the Pandas’ lead had dwindled to just a single point at 20-19. UBC seized their opportunity and completed the first set comeback with a double block for 25-21.
Despite the setback, Alberta looked reinvigorated as the second set got underway, and won the first five points of the frame thanks largely to some heroic backcourt defence. That early push proved vital for the Pandas, who took a 16-10 lead into the second set technical after the Thunderbirds were flagged for four touches.
Alberta was dominating play, and the set rarely looked in doubt as they raced toward the finish line. The Pandas would wrap up the one-sided frame by a 10-point margin after UBC’s Kyla Richey fired well long from the left side.
Having leveled the match, Alberta immediately set to work in the third set, outdueling the Thunderbirds in seemingly every facet to build a 10-4 lead before UBC called time in hopes of regrouping. The surging Pandas were causing havoc for the defending champions from the service line and were immaculate on the attacking front, playing the entire third set without committing a hitting error.
Alberta rode that frightening form to a massive 16-8 lead at the technical timeout, and would see out the third set despite a spirited UBC run that saw the Thunderbirds close within six points at 24-18. They had fallen behind, but the abortive late surge on the defending champions’ part had broken Alberta’s momentum, and that reality became readily apparent in the fourth frame.
After a period of side-out volleyball to begin the set, UBC would build a 12-9 lead with an ace and force the Pandas to call time. The Thunderbirds’ service struck again only a few points later as the defending champions carried a 16-12 advantage into the fourth set technical.
The Panda attack that had seemed nearly invincible in the third frame was comparatively vulnerable in the fourth, and after Omelchenko fell into a waiting UBC double block, Alberta fired wide to gift the set to the Thunderbirds and send the championship match to a deciding fifth game.
Much as they had in the previous set, UBC started quickly in the fifth and won the first three points of the abbreviated period. The Pandas would recover their form well to close the early gap, but after CIS Player of the Year Kyla Richey found the floor with a powerful cross-court swing, UBC led 8-7 at the changeover.
The Thunderbirds pressed home their advantage after the break, and would move ahead 12-8 after an emotional double block. The Pandas once again mounted a comeback, but when a wayward Alberta serve brought up match point the Pandas proved unable to stave off elimination.
Alberta would attempt a rushed attack at 14-12 only for Omelchenko to push an attempted tip into a waiting UBC double block. The only thing left for Alberta to do was watch as the rejected attack found the floor and the Thunderbirds mobbed the court to celebrate their fifth-consecutive national championship.
UBC’s Lisa Barclay was her team’s leading scorer on the day, racking up 12 kills, six aces and three block assists for a total of 18.5 points. Meanwhile, the Pandas’ CIS All-Rookie outside Alena Omelchenko was the most prolific hitter on court, notching 19 kills, two aces and four combined blocks for 24 points over the course of the five set contest.
For her weekend-long effort, Barclay was named as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Earlier on Sunday, the McGill Martlets overcame the favoured Montreal Carabins in an all-Quebec bronze medal match by a 3-1 score line. The result caps an unlikely late season run for a Martlet team that struggled throughout the RSEQ season en route to a 5-10 record.
But after upsetting the Laval Rouge et Or in a conference semifinal to book their spot in the national tournament, McGill has claimed the first medal in school history. The Martlets’ only previous appearance at the tournament in 1997 ended with a sixth-placed finish.
The Trinity Western Spartans also closed their championship account on a winning note on Sunday, downing the AUS-champion Saint Mary’s Huskies in four sets to finish fifth in the eight-team field.