Thunderbirds claim 11th championship in program history with 3-1 triumph over rival Pandas

Photo credit: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

The UBC Thunderbirds earned their 11th national title in program history on Sunday afternoon at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, defeating their Canada West rivals from Alberta by a score of 3-1 (25-22, 25-20, 13-25, 25-20) in the U SPORTS championship final.

The Thunderbirds, who earned their first national banner since 2013, were led by Championship MVP Danielle Brisebois, who recorded 20 kills and worked at a .356 hitting efficiency while adding eight digs in the final post-secondary match of her career. Fellow tournament all-star Maggie Li added 11 kills, while Alessandra Gentile chipped in with 37 set assists and two kills. Gentile was also named a tournament all-star.

“Today and yesterday I was just really impressed in our consistency of play, especially in our first two sets,” said Thunderbirds head coach Doug Reimer. “Then we had a hiccup in the third set and start of the fourth. Our ability to battle back and there were tons of turning points in there. One of the great things about our sports is that you can make a lot of errors and still win. Maggie Li (was struggling on serve) before she went on a run that turned the fourth set around. Like she served absolute rockets. That’s very cool for her and us, and generally for the team and sport it’s just impossible to predict.”

“Alberta had a really good tournament,” said Championship MVP Brisebois. “I felt they dominated the first two games (of the tournament) and they definitely brought that same attitude (today). We knew we had to stay point for point with them if we wanted a chance in the end. The third set they adjusted better, and I think we slipped there but (in) the fourth set we were just so motivated I think. We knew it would be back and forth and we’d have to weather their good plays.”

Championship all-stars Meg Casault and Kacey Otto led Alberta with 14 kills and 10 kills respectively. Otto tallied four aces and a team-high 16 digs in a losing cause for the Pandas, who were vying for their eighth national title. Alberta’s last championship came in 2007, and they remain tied with Manitoba and Winnipeg at seven national banners.

After going down 6-2 in the opening set, the Thunderbirds battled back to take over the lead before the technical. Li (North Saanich, B.C.) picked up a pair of kills and added a block, sparking UBC on a 7-2 streak. The senior middle polished off the run with a clever tip in the open court to give her team a 16-14 lead at the break.

Nanaimo, B.C., native Victoria Behie capped off four straight points from UBC coming out of the technical to give the Thunderbirds a 20-15 lead. The Pandas then committed two service errors late in the set, the first by Otto (Calgary, Alta.) to give their Canada West rivals a set point. After the Pandas saved two set points, Mariah Walsh (Calgary) sent her serve long, allowing UBC to draw first blood in the championship.

The Canada West titans traded points in the early going of the second before back-to-back kills by Li and Laura MacTaggart (Lacombe, Alta.) were followed by consecutive aces by Ciara Hanley (Calgary), catalyzing a six-point run by the Thunderbirds. They held a 16-9 lead at the technical.

Four more consecutive points, capped off with another MacTaggart strike, pushed the lead up to eight. Shauny Hogg (Calgary) tried to stem the Thunderbird momentum, picking up a kill and block on consecutive plays to bring Alberta within five. Juliana Kaufmanis (Richmond, B.C.) responded with two straight kills of her own to pull UBC within one set of the national banner.

Brisebois (Bolton, Ont.) picked up two quick kills to start the third, but a cross-court hit from the right-side by Vanessa Jarman (Edmonton, Alta.) put the Pandas up by one early. Consecutive blocks by the Thunderbirds evened the game at 9-9, but Otto responded with a pair of aces to help Alberta stay in front. Casault (Edmonton) tallied consecutive kills, helping her team to a 16-11 advantage.

Photo credit: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics
Photo credit: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

The Pandas continued to remain hot, picking up seven of the next eight points to give themselves a commanding lead. Two kills from Otto sent the teams into the fourth set with UBC up 2-1.

Li caught fire from behind the service line in the fourth, picking up a formidable four aces that jumpstarted the Thunderbirds on an 8-0 run to take a five-point lead. Otto answered for Alberta with two aces, and a tip by Casault brought the Pandas within one. Hogg evened the game with a put-back off a long serve-receive, and Alberta moved in front by one at the technical.

A left-side attack down the line by Brisebois was followed by an ace from Gentile, and UBC went up by three late in the fourth. After an Alberta attack went long, Brisebois pounded another ball for a point, bringing her team within two points of the championship.

Jarman responded with an ace, but the Thunderbirds earned a match-point soon on the next sequence. MacTaggart made no mistake after a Panda serve-receive went long, clinching the national title with a strike from the middle.

Reimer spoke of the rivalry between Alberta and UBC, who have together dominated the championship tournament over the last two decades.

Photo credit: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics
Photo credit: Rich Lam/UBC Athletics

“It’s a very friendly rivalry. Laurie is a tremendous coach, nobody works harder and does more,” he said. “One thing I have said… is sometimes there are championship teams and they don’t necessarily win. There are years where there are many teams playing at such a high level, and I would put Alberta in that category this year. Last weekend they beat us in the Canada West Championship and they deserved it.”

Sunday’s championship final was the fourth time in the past two decades that UBC and Alberta have met for the gold medal. The Pandas took home the banner in 1997 and 1999, with UBC winning the last three between the squads, including titles in 2012, 2013, and now 2017.