Jr. spikers clip Eagles for crown

Dan Falloon

The Muskie junior boys’ volleyball team certainly used home court to its advantage at the NorWOSSA playoffs last Wednesday.
The black-and-gold won six of seven sets they played, sweeping the Kenora Broncos 25-19, 25-21, and 27-25 in the morning semi-final before rebounding from a 25-20 loss in the opening set of the final that afternoon to reel off three-straight wins over Dryden to earn the gold medal.
After dropping that first set to the Eagles, the Muskies rallied for eight-straight points to grab a 15-9 lead in the second one, which they won 25-9.
Dryden stormed back nearly every time the Muskies forged ahead in the third set, crawling back from deficits of 9-3 and 18-13 to eventually knot the score at 22-all.
But Fort High prevailed in the end and won 25-23.
The black-and-gold then followed a similar formula in the fourth set, going up 11-3 before Dryden took six-straight points.
The Muskies then went up 17-12, but the Eagles evened things at 18-18.
With the taste of success in their mouths, however, the Muskies went 7-1 down the stretch to capture Fort High’s first junior boys’ volleyball title since 2001-02.
“They played the way that I knew they could play,” enthused head coach John Gibson.
“They pieced it all together for the finals, and they came out, they attacked.
“A couple times in a game when we had a couple mental errors, they were able to rally back from it and continue to play aggressive, continue to hit the ball,” he noted.
“It’s the first time we’ve won a volleyball gold in quite a while for the high school, so I know it’s big,” Gibson added.
Gibson was encouraged that his players were able to battle back from the one-set deficit in the final, and didn’t let adversity get the best of them when the Eagles made Muskie leads vanish.
“We saw the attitude on the court,” he remarked. “They had their heads up the whole day.
“It was awesome to watch.”
The ability to fight back was particularly encouraging considering that heading into the NorWOSSA playoffs, Fort High was unable to capitalize on a 1-0 lead against Kenora and 2-0 lead against Dryden in their final two matches of the regular season.
“We had seen that at times before, but we also saw them struggle when they did get behind a couple points or when teams did close up the gap,” Gibson recalled.
“They played above that, and even after they dropped a four or five-point lead, they came right back and got it back and opened it up again and got a couple points ahead.
“The kids played really, really well,” he lauded.
“Even when Dryden played great and did come back, we weathered that storm.”
Gibson said the comeback task was made easier by the fact the Muskies competed hard in the opening set despite the loss, meaning there wasn’t much to be tightened up.
“We had a great first set. It was close,” he said.
“After the first set, encouragement. Come out, get the momentum early, and play well—and they did.”
The set was just one example of how close the two team were entering the NorWOSSA final as they had split the four-game season series 2-2.
Fort High entered the playoffs with a 5-3 record while Dryden had finished first—and earned the bye to the final—at 6-2 mark.
Gibson admitted he was surprised the best-of-five final didn’t end up going the distance.
“We expected it to be a tight match because it’s been tight with us and Dryden the whole season, whether it be in tournament or league play.
“We were back and forth.
“[Dryden coach] Graham [Roberts] and I talked today and we said, ‘You know what, we’re probably going to go five today,’” Gibson added after Wednesday’s win.
“We didn’t expect any less. We thought both teams would rise and play really well, and make it a really good match.
“Thankfully, we did finish it in four, which was very comforting,” Gibson conceded.
Similarly, Gibson acknowledged the importance of closing out the sweep in the semi-final earlier that day versus Kenora.
Not only did the Muskies not tire themselves out just making the final, but also developed the killer instinct later shown against Dryden.
“That was big for us,” Gibson stressed.
Winning the league crown also was a bounce-back for the second-year members of the team, which had cruised to an 8-0 record in the regular season last year before Dryden dashed their bid for an undefeated season in the final.
Gibson said he was glad those memories were unspoken ones throughout this season.
“For the kids in Grade 10, it was probably in the back of their minds, but it didn’t come up with the team,” he noted.
“That was good. It was a new year, a new season,” he remarked.
“Those kids that were in Grade 9 last year were the leaders this year, and it showed.”
One player Gibson felt took on a strong leadership role was Scott Parsons, although each starter stepped up at different times.
“Scott Parsons stood out for me,” he lauded. “After plays, [he was] talking to guys, and talking them up and getting them back into it.
“He was phenomenal. He was really good in a leadership role,” Gibson continued.
“But all the starting six, what a great group of guys. To play like that was fantastic.”
The team bonded well throughout the season, as evidenced by the cheer of “1, 2, 3, friends!” the squad would yell as it broke a huddle.
Gibson explained the cheer was the brainchild of Will Anderson.
“He led us in the cheers and when he was up, and he was taking the team out on the court, the kids loved it.
“It was lots of fun.”
Meanwhile, Gibson projected the returning core will be strong heading into next season as the Muskies embark on a journey to repeat as NorWOSSA champs.
“We set up really, really nicely for next year,” he enthused. “We’ve got two Grade 9s that were already playing left-side.
“We’ve got Derek Kaemingh, for one, as a setter, and we’ve got Connor Botsford.
“We’ve got two great sets of hands coming up in Grade 10, which is important to running our offence,” Gibson explained.
“Defensively, you saw Braeden Caul. He played great out there as a Grade 9 when he got called up and I look forward to having him anchoring the middle again next year,” Gibson added.
In closing, Gibson praised longtime coach Duane Roen, who went from the juniors to be a coach with the Muskie senior squad while Gibson traded the senior helm for the junior one.
“For me, I stepped in this year, and the kids that were in Grade 10 were a big part of Duane Roen’s program in Grade 9,” he lauded.
“I’ve got to give accolades to him. The way the kids developed and then again progressed this year, it’s awesome to see,” Gibson said.