Two programs ended long droughts on Friday to claim Central Alberta high school volleyball zone titles.
The Hunting Hills Lightning needed all five sets to beat the Lindsay Thurber Raiders 3-2 (25-17, 21-25, 25-21, 20-25, 15-13) and sweep the senior girls’ best-of-three zone final. The Notre Dame Cougars, meanwhile, did not drop a set to the Raiders to win both matches of the senior boys’ final, including 3-0 (25-21, 25-19, 25-20) to clinch it.
The Lightning made their final as exciting as possible, in front of a raucous and mostly full Hunting Hills gym.
“It feels so good, especially beating them two games in a row,” said Hunting Hills captain and setter Emma Delemont. “It just feels awesome to have that win over our rival school.”
The match was a game of momentum with both schools taking turns with the throttle. The Raiders appeared to be on the verge of forcing a third and final match this morning, after winning the fourth set and taking a 7-4 lead in the fifth.
But Hunting Hills came roaring back to take an 8-7 lead as they switched sides and led by as many as 14-11.
Thurber won the next two points and held service as they tried to tie the match. But the Lightning returned the serve and then Bailey Beingessne stuff blocked a Raiders attack on clinch the victory.
“I was just hoping they weren’t going to dig it up (on match point) because they dig up so many of our hits, I was just hopping they weren’t going to dig it up again,” said Lightning head coach Blake MacKay.
The Raiders got a huge game out of both Beingessne and power Jaedyn Paanup, both coming up with big points and blocks at key times throughout the evening.
“They’ve both been with me for three years and they just keep on working,” said MacKay. “They’re not afraid to hit, no matter what happened on the previous play, they’re not afraid to keep hitting.”
Meanwhile, libero Morgan Whitbread had a big final defensively and passing the ball out of the back court for Hunting Hills, setting up their offence.
The Lightning started off the season with a win over the Raiders at the Red Deer College tournament, but failed to beat them again until Game 1 of the final on Thursday. They have managed to come a long way in a few short months. While their work ethic has always been strong, it’s been the mental game which has come the furthest for them.
“Their attitude is better where if they get down a few points they fight back, where as before if they got down a few points, they got down on each other and down on themselves, now they’re a much better team that way,” said MacKay.
Up next is the Alberta Schools Athletic Association championships in Lloydminster, hosted by Lloydminster Comprehensive High School, next weekend.
Delemont’s goal after eliminating the Notre Dame Cougars in the semifinal was just to extend their season, now they are hoping to shock the province with their first title in more than 10 years.
“If we play like we did tonight and last night I’m expecting us to do decent, but the right team has to show up,” said MacKay.
The Cougars boys locked horns with the Raiders all year, splitting the season series. However, Notre Dame held the advantage in tournament play and it showed in their final series to win the zone title and punch their own ticket to the Border City
“We had some guys who had played a lot of volleyball and a lot of high-quality volleyball through club and school seasons, and I think that maturity really made the difference in the final,” said Notre Dame head coach AJ Mahoney.
Still, despite not dropping a set to the reigning provincial champion Raiders, Mahoney says the final was close, particularly Friday’s Game 3.
“Like always when we play them, it was very back-and-forth,” said Mahoney. “It was a battle until the very end, we managed to pull away when it mattered but they fought the entire time.”
The Cougars were led by a trio of Grade 12 players setter Nick Schumacher, outside hitter Jordy Quinn and libero Kane Leblanc.
They were part of last year’s squad that went to provincials as a wild card. This time they earned their way their and Mahoney said he could sense them grab the moment.
“After last year, a bunch of these guys had to sit and watch … and so I think they were here to play and ready to take their opportunity and make the most of their time on the floor,” he said. “They didn’t want it to be their last game so we really wanted to push for next week.”
The Cougars have not won a zone title in the last half decade and are going into provincials under the radar. They have played some of the teams that will be there and have held their own and are hoping to sneak their way onto the podium.
“We’re going in with high expectations with having a good shot of placing well,” said Mahoney.