By the time the Belmont Bulldogs reached Saturday’s gold medal match at the B.C. AAAA girls volleyball championships, they had a pretty good sense something special was about to happen in North Vancouver.
Having rebounded from two losses to dominate a fifth-set tiebreaker and beat Lord Tweedsmuir 3-2 in the quarter-finals the night before, then won a razor-close semifinal 3-1 over number 1-ranked Earl Marriott on Saturday morning, the West Shore players were on an incredible emotional high.
The Bulldogs, accustomed to the drama and pressure of a provincial final – this group won the B.C. junior girls title in 2015 – systematically gave the host Handsworth Royals all they could handle and more in the final, winning 3-0 (25-17, 25-10, 25-22).
“It’s awesome, especially with this group of girls,” said right side hitter Hannah May, whose hard, well-placed spikes handcuffed the Royals numerous times. “We’ve been together most of us for six years now, through school and club (volleyball), and it’s super special to be able to play all year round with these girls.”
May’s play over the weekend earned her an all-star nomination, while front court mate Savannah Purdy, a constant attacking threat and defensive standout whose cross-court kill clinched the title, earned tournament most valuable player honours.
Bulldogs head coach Mike Toakley said the team’s stars indeed stood out, but the team’s play was solid throughout the lineup, especially in the final.
“They were sensational, especially the first and second sets. They played almost flawless volleyball, which in high school volleyball is almost impossible to do,” he said.
The provincial volleyball title is the first for a Belmont senior girls team since 2001, when a squad led by future NCAA champion Darla Myhre and sisters Kathy and Elaine Anderson (a current Toakley assistant coach) won the B.C. crown.
While winning the senior crown with a roster of Grade 11 and even a few Grade 10 players should be evidence enough to declare this group special, what has impressed Toakley is the resilience they’ve displayed this year and in past.
When they ran into the injury bug just as playdowns were getting underway last month, they found themselves losing to a Mount Doug team that is good, but not quite as good as the Bulldogs are when healthy. That tested their mettle, Toakley said, but they still managed to do what was needed to reach provincials and put themselves in position to win it.
Big start includes straight-set win over finalist Royals
Belmont went 3-0 in pool play, including a 2-0 (26-24, 25-18) match win over Handsworth. With championship round matches shifting to best-of-five, the Bulldogs peeled off a 3-0 win over Lord Byng in the round of 16.
Having lost just one set by that time in the tournament, the Bulldogs were primed to take on the best of the best. They opened the quarters against Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir with two more wins (25-21, 25-23), then uncharacteristically lost two straight (25-22, 25-14).
What happened next floored even the seasoned coach Toakley.
With their season on the line and their ambitions to do well at the tournament hanging in the balance, he said, the players huddled amongst themselves, and with the maturity of veterans, inspired each other positively to do the things that got them to that point.
“I stayed out of it, I just let them do what they were doing,” he said. “They got each other up off the mat and they won easily. They came from a horrible drubbing and turned around and righted the ship. The leadership they displayed – and it was all of them – it was a beautiful thing. They beat a very good Tweedsmuir team in that fifth-set tiebreaker.”
The Bulldogs took a similar route in the semifinals against another Surrey team, the top-rated Mariners. The teams were evenly matched and Belmont needed extra points to take the first two sets, 26-24, 26-24. Marriott rebounded for a 25-21 win, but the Bulldogs clamped down and posted a convincing 25-14 decision to advance to the final.
Championship match goes virtually as scripted
Having beaten Handsworth three times in three meetings this season, the final looked on paper to be almost a foregone conclusion.
The first two sets played to that script, but Handsworth showed spunk to jump out to a 6-1 lead, and later led 10-6. But the Bulldogs were relentless, served for six straight points and never trailed after that.
“We all stayed positive and whenever we came into the huddle we made everyone happy,” said Grade 10 setter Taylee Pomponio, who consistently gave Belmont hitters good balls to strike. “We played our best and we knew we had it. The third set was a little iffy … but we kind sucked it up and came together as a team and got back in it. We came to provincials ready to win.”
This group of players has a dynamic; a familiarity and friendship and trust that makes them go to the wall for each other. That said, Toakley called this achievement the “culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of effort.”
“It was truly an emotional roller coaster for them, and to come out the other side with the prize is really quite remarkable.”
He didn’t want to hazard a guess what next season might look like, with every player eligible to come back and a talented group of Grade 10s moving up. Other teams at the provincials featured some outstanding players in junior grades, he said, so it’s anybody’s guess what could happen next fall.
“Next year is a long ways away yet. I think we want to just relax and take this in for a while.”