There’s a reason the cliche about the difficulty in repeating as a champion exists and at the high school level it only becomes tougher.
It is the feat the Lindsay Thurber Raiders senior boy’s volleyball team is trying to accomplish this year after capturing last year’s provincial banner.
However, they only return three players and one starter from their championship roster due to graduation. Still, they find themselves as one of the top teams in the region, along with Notre Dame, with their sites set squarely on returning to the provincial tournament.
“We’re quite close with (Notre Dame),” said Raiders head coach Terence McMullen, noting several close battles already this season. “We’re young, they’re young and it’s going to be the team that figures it out the fastest that gets out of the zone and goes on to provincials.”
The Raiders finished tied for third at their 41st annual varsity tournament this weekend with the Catholic Central Cougars out of Lethbridge — Thurber rolled through undefeated to the semifinal where they lost to the Notre Dame Cougars 2-0 (25-15, 25-19). Notre Dame then lost 2-1 (21-25, 25-21, 15-9) to the E.P. Scarlett Lancers out of Calgary.
There is still glut of talent in the lineup, including Grade 11 left side Ben Holmes who is the only starter back from last year and even he is moving over from the middle. But as one of the most talented prospects in the region, the move was made necessary to better take advantage of his raw offensive skills.
“He’s had a little bit of a transition, but he fits well for us, he’s one of our best athletes so he needs to be on the outside so he can get the ball a whole bunch,” said McMullen. “Looking forward for this year and next year it was a no-brainer to out him in a spot where he’d get a high volume.”
Holmes will be joined by Grade 12 returnees captain Jarrett Zilinski on the left side and setter Fischer Kooman and together form a solid leadership core.
Having this trio back is key in passing on the lessons they learned in becoming the best team in Alberta.
“When you build programs, in high school it’s hard because you can’t really recruit anybody, so having your program develop those things on their own and pass them on is huge,” said McMullen. “That experience is invaluable right now, especially with Jarrett, he’s very vocal and he’s very helpful in that he’s almost an assistant coach on the floor.”
There are a number of young players that have shown a lot of potential in the young season that has McMullen encouraged not just for this season but for subsequent years including Grade 10 middle Reece Lehman and setter Chris Graham, both of whom come from deep volleyball families.
“They’re able to do thing that most Grade 10s can’t in terms of just what they understand and the kind of pressure you can put on them,” said McMullen. “It’s really nice to have two really good Grade 10s and a couple of really good Grade 11s and the older Grade 12s that are your leaders. You work through that whole program not just this year but next year and the year after as well.”
The Raiders senior girls team is also coming off a successful season in which they won the consolation title at provincials and also are in a bit of a rebuild this year.
They have five veterans back from that team — Grade 12s setter Bretton Bowd, setter Molly Rumohr, outside hitter Tara Sudlow and Grade 11 libero Kaylee Domoney and outside hitter Kelsey Lalor — but are in the process of figuring out who they are as a team.
“We’ve been striving to be competitive in every game,” said head coach Kirsten DeZutter. “We have a young team but it’s an exciting team to coach. We’re just focusing on developing skills.”
The Raiders girls also finished tied for third at their tournament on the weekend, though with the Hunting Hills Lightning. The Raiders finished first in the A pool with a 3-1 record and beat Notre Dame in the quarter-final 2-1 (20-25, 25-16, 15-11) but fell 2-0 (25-16, 25-21) to the Bev Facey Falcons out of Sherwood Park in the semifinal. Bec Facey went on to beat Scarlett 2-0 (25-21, 25-18) in the final.
While they would like to at least repeat last year’s accomplishments, they are building towards the future with five Grade 11s and three Grade 10s currently on the roster and a strong group of girls on the junior varsity team.
“They work so hard in practice, they are so coachable,” said DeZutter. “It is one of the most positive teams I’ve ever worked with.”
DeZutter is leaning on the experience of her five returning players to pass on the Raiders way.
“It’s critical, you try and draw on their experience from the previous year to help the rest of the team be prepared for what’s coming from other teams, but also for Lindsay Thurber Raiders play and how we work and how we function and what are our team traditions,” she said.
They are not the biggest team in the province, so they focus on using their speed and team defence to counter the attacks of some of their taller competition.
Still expectations are high for this year.
“We want to compete at a high level and compete at with the Central Alberta teams,” said DeZutter. “Our goal is to be the Central Alberta representative at provincials.”
NOTES — The Hunting Hills Lightning girls finished 4-0 in Pool B, and beat Robert Thirsk out of Calgary in the quarters before falling 2-0 (29-27, 25-19) in the quarters to Bev Facey … Scarlett was the only team to beat the Notre Dame boys in the round robin, winning 2-0 (26-24, 25-19) … The Hunting Hills boys finished 0-3 in the round robin before losing 2-1 (26-24, 21-25, 15-11) to Lindsay Thurber in the quarter-final … Hunting Hills High School hosts a senior volleyball tournament this weekend.