Thunderbirds hold off resilient Mustangs to reach national semifinals

2017 U SPORTS Women’s Volleyball Championship

FirstTeam All-Canadian Danielle Brisebois tallied a game-high 23.5 points, and the UBC Thunderbirds clinched a berth in the national semifinals at the U SPORTS Women’s Volleyball Championship, Presented by Jason Rinaldi, by topping the Western Mustangs 3-1 (25-20, 23-25, 25-19, 25-20) in their quarter-final contest on Friday afternoon at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.

Brisebois tallied 22 kills to go along with an ace and eight digs, while Juliana Kaufmanis added 12 kills, three aces, and 13 digs for the Thunderbirds, who advance to take on a familiar foe in fellow Canada West representative Trinity Western on Saturday night.

The Thunderbirds worked at a .333 efficiency throughout the afternoon, but struggled at times from the service line, committing 21 serve errors compared to 12 aces.

“(It was) not our ‘A’ game but that’s not unusual in the first round of nationals,” said UBC coach Doug Reimer. “So having said that, I give our team some credit…I think the response was there. I thought we handled the ball better (in the third set). Given how poorly we served, I thought our side-out offense was pretty good.

“We are going to have to serve the ball significantly better. We have to work harder and execute better defensively. If we are able to play with some joy and some purpose, and get into it, we will give Trinity a good run tomorrow.”

“We got our jitters out,” said UBC Player of the Game Samantha Patko (Vancouver, B.C.), who picked up 12 digs and five assists. “Coming into nationals there are always some nerves so I thought we got that out. We missed a few too many serves but recovered well.

The Mustangs were led by Kelsey Veltman, who tallied 10 kills and 3.5 blocks in a losing cause, while Aja Gyimah added eight kills and three aces for Western. The OUA silvermedalists move to the consolation round on Saturday, where they will take on McMaster in a re-match of last weekend’s conference championship final. The winner of that match will play for fifthplace on Sunday morning.

“Overall, we can be a little disappointed with our execution level,” said Western coach Melissa Bartlett. “I am as proud as always of the way we battled in the playoffs and the grit we’ve shown the last number of matches. We have that refuse to lose (mentality), we play tough and our goal is not to let strings of points get in our head, and we did such a good job with that.”

“It was a well-fought match by us,” said Western Player of the Game Tia Miric (Toronto), who recorded five kills, nine digs as well as 2.0 blocks. “We came in with a great attitude. We were down in the beginning, but we always find our way back. We are disappointed we can’t move on but are happy with how we played.”

Playing in their first national championship since 2011, the Mustangs looked a bit nervous out of the gate, and the 10-time banner winners from UBC took full advantage, jumping out to 13-1 lead in the opening set. As they showed on numerous occasions one weekend earlier at the OUA Championship, the Mustangs persevered to pick up 13 of the next 17 points to pull within  five points of the Thunderbirds.

Gyimah (Scarborough, Ont.) tallied back-to-back aces to help maintain the Western momentum, but UBC held off the rally thanks to four kills from Brisebois (Bolton, Ont.) and three aces by Ciara Hanly (Calgary, Alta.) to take the first set 25-20.

The Mustangs would carry that momentum into the second set, however, and after the teams traded the first ten points of the set, the OUA silvermedalists grabbed a 16-13 advantage at the technical timeout.

After the Thunderbirds evened the set at 17-17, Western took the next four points, which was capped off with a timely ace from Veltman (Brampton, Ont.). A tip from Candice Scott (Kitchener, Ont.) would give the Mustangs three set points, and a thunderous kill from the middle of the net by Veltman, her fourth of the set, evened the match 1-1 heading into the third.

Maggie Li (North Saanich, B.C.) picked up back-to-back kills to give the Thunderbirds a 6-5 led early in the third set. After Western tied the game, Brisebois would make her presence felt, picking up three straight kills from the left side to put UBC up by four. Setter Alessandra Gentile (Port Moody, B.C.) used some trickery to pick up two more points, twice dumping the ball into the open court to help the Thunderbirds maintain their spread. UBC held a 16-14 lead at the technical.

The Thunderbirds picked up four of the next five points coming out of the break to give themselves some breathing room. A block by Kaufmanis (Richmond, B.C.) was followed by an ace from Miric to put UBC up 20-15. A Western service error gave the Thunderbirds set point, and Brisebois put her team up 2-1 with her seventh kill of the set.

After taking a 10-6 lead in the fourth, the UBC serving hit a cold spell, as three different Thunderbird servers put the ball into the net, allowing the Mustangs to climb back to within four points of the lead. After an ace by Li put UBC up 21-15, the Mustangs grabbed the next three points to tighten the set. Coming out of their own timeout, the Thunderbirds responded with a mini-run by taking three of the next four points, and the game ended with a Mustang attack going off the net antenna.

UBC will take on Trinity Western at 6:00 p.m. (EST) on Saturday in the first semifinal of the Championship, while Western will play McMaster at 12:00 p.m. in the first consolation semi.