MOOSE JAW — From the time they walked onto the court for the first time this season to the time they walked off it Saturday evening the RDC Kings were ranked No. 1 in Canada.
Despite the pressure and the bullseye on their backs the Kings put together an impressive season, concluding with a 25-20, 25-19, 25-18 victory over the host Briercrest Bible College Clippers in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association men’s volleyball gold medal game before an overflow crowd at the Yara Centre.
They lost only once and that was in the last regular season game against Grant MacEwan, when they already had first place wrapped up. Put together the regular season and the ACAC and Canadian playoffs the Kings finished at 23-1.
It was the first championship win for head coach Aaron Schulha, who won a pair of gold medals as a player.
“It’s different,” he said. “I believe this is a pride thing for the athletes, especially for those who returned from last year and the way it finished (losing to Nipissing in the final).
“From the start to the finish you could tell they were focused and embraced the environment. It could have went the other way, but it showed the maturity of the guys.”
Although the Kings were the higher seed they were definitely underdogs when it came to the crowd, who had thunder sticks, horns and everything else that made noise. The RDC fans were easily drowned out, until the end when it came time to celebrate.
“We talked about not trying to win this too early, but play our game. We were up against all the fans and the home team and it worked out,” said Kings veteran Tim Finnigan, who was the RDC player of the match.
The Clippers were at a slight disadvantage as their all-star middle blocker Josh Wendel was out with a hamstring injury, he suffered in the semifinal. The Clippers also changed their starting six, inserting four athletic outside hitters.
“But we didn’t change our game plan,” said Finnigan.
“We knew what we had to do and we all came together when it mattered this weekend.”
“Briercrest is a good team and when their middle went down it certainly hurt them a bit, but they put together a different lineup from what we saw before,” said Schulha. “But our guys adjusted on the fly and didn’t let it faze them was really impressive and speaks of their maturity.”
Clippers head coach Nigel Mullan would have loved to have Wendel in the match, but wasn’t making excuses.
“He’s a big loss and one of our energy leaders,” he said.
“But Red Deer is a good team and were a solid team all year. I’m really proud of our guys as they played well in front of the fans and under some pressure.”
The Kings have one of the deepest offensive teams in the country, but what was impressive was their passing and defence.
“We have a lot of weapons and match up with any team at the net,” added Schulha. “But it comes down to first contact and defence and to see our guys buy in was impressive. There wasn’t any balls to hit the floor without the guys contesting them. Our serve receive and passing was consistent, which is hard to do under pressure. That was the difference for sure.”
Kings veteran right side Braden O’Toole had another strong game with 13 kills and two aces and was named the tournament MVP.
“That’s nice, but to help us win these medals is all that matters to me,” he said. “We felt all year we didn’t play our best volleyball as a team, but we came together at the right time.”
O’Toole gave credit to his teammates for his award.
“Having Chris (Osborn) in the middle and with Tim and Chris (Jones) they can’t just concentrate on me,” said O’Toole, who will attend the U of C next year.
“It’s a great way to finish here,” he said. “But really I came to Red Deer to play basketball and didn’t know anything about the volleyball. But I played just one semester of basketball and switched and it feels great. And I couldn’t be happier for Schulha. He deserves this.”
Finnigan had 12 kills, four aces and 11 digs while Osborn had six kills and four stuff blocks, Jones five kills and five digs, Sam Brisbane 35 assists and 10 digs and libero Parker Maris seven digs. Middle Justin Lukacs had two kills and a block.
Anthony Finnigan was the other member of the team to play, coming in to serve.
Brisbane, Osborn and Finnigan were all named to the first all-star team.
“This is an unbelievable year and I will be riding high for a while,” said Brisbane a native of Melbourne, Australia, who will join Mount Royal University next season.
“I didn’t need to try to change our offence today as everyone was going and I had a number of options.”
The only real setback the Kings had in the tournament was an opening set loss to Columbia Bible College of Abbotsford, B.C. in the semifinals.
“That was our only adversity and the guys came back strong in the second set and played the way we can and played with confidence,” said Schulha, who isn’t about to celebrate for long.
“I’ll enjoy this for 24 hours and then try to figure out a way to make this a habit,” he concluded.