Western’s women’s volleyball team will return to London as OUA silver medalists after losing a tightly contested five-set match to the McMaster Marauders in Toronto on Saturday. Both teams have qualified for the National Championships taking place next weekend in Toronto, hosted by Ryerson.

The silver medal is an improvement on the back-to-back bronze medals that the Mustangs have had in the past two seasons. Despite ultimately losing the gold medal, the game could have gone either way. The Mustangs were neck-and-neck with the Marauders up until the final point.

“I don't think I could be more proud if we had won,” said Mustangs head coach Melissa Bartlett in a post-game interview. “It was one of those where unfortunately in that match there had to be a loser, but both teams put on such a phenomenal display of volleyball, we have so much to be proud of.”

The Marauders claimed the first two sets over the Mustangs, 26-28 and 18-25. The Marauders were the stronger team, dominating the Mustangs at the start of the first set before the Mustangs clawed their way back into the set, tying it up and exchanging points late in the set. Nerves seemed to get the better of the Mustangs, who had a shaky start. In the first set alone, the Mustangs made nine errors, compared to McMaster who only made four.  

The second set was more one-sided, with the Marauders jumping out to an early 5-2 lead. McMaster maintained their lead for the entire set, and came out with a decisive victory, with only two errors and 13 kills. The Mustangs had seven errors, and 11 kills, and were on the brink of losing the match.

“I think it was just nerves,” said third-year middle and OUA Western Player of the Year Kelsey Veltman. “OUA finals, none of us have ever been in that situation before, so I think it was just getting nerves out and dealing with that right away.”

Western battled back, taking sets three and four 27-25 and 25-23. The third set got off to another slow start for the Mustangs, as McMaster dominated early, but the momentum shifted after a ruling that saw one of McMasters points get awarded to the Mustangs. Western managed to go on a six-point run that saw them tie the set up at 16. Both team exchanged points before the Mustangs pulled ahead and claimed the set.

“We gained some confidence; now we know even though we can be 10 points down, we know we can battle back and even win those sets,” said Veltman. “No matter how tight or how far we might be, it just gave us a whole new type of confidence.”

The fourth set once again saw McMaster jump out to an early lead, but saw another momentum shift after McMaster received their second yellow card of the game, giving Mustangs a point and possession of the ball, making it 11-6 for McMaster. The Mustangs managed to tie it up at 16, with both teams exchanging the lead, before Western emerged on top.

The game went to a fifth deciding set, which saw the teams go back and forth. McMaster had an 8-7 lead at the turn, before the Mustangs came storming back. With the match point and the gold medal only a point away, the Mustangs served out of bounds, bringing the serve back to McMaster, where they sealed the deal, winning OUA Gold by a score of 3-2 (28-26; 25-28; 27-25; 23-25; 17-15).

“I think we treated everyone to something pretty special, to go that far down the road and get a couple of blocks against that team, so it's just those tiny little moments,” said McMaster head coach Tim Louks. “Western is pretty darn good, it's about staying on game plans, and making small adjustments, it's a bit of a chess match, shifting things, and then you just got to get some breaks and we got a couple at the end.”

The silver medals comes at the heels of an amazing triumph for the Mustangs in their semifinal game that saw them take down the undefeated University of Toronto Varsity Blues in five sets (25-19; 17-25; 25-22; 20-25; 16-14) in a huge upset of the defending champs. The Varsity Blues were undefeated in the regular season for the second year in a row, and had not lost a game since the CIS national tournament in 2015, where they lost in the bronze medal match against l’Universite do Montreal.

The loss means that the Varsity Blues will not have a chance to defend either of their banners, as they failed to qualify for the National tournament next weekend, and settled for OUA bronze against the Ryerson Rams (25-19; 25-23; 19-25; 25-23).

“It's ok to feel this one and it hurts a little bit, but I know that we're super excited to get back to work next week and find out who we match up against,” said Bartlett.  

The Mustangs' season is far from over as they will be heading back to Toronto later this week to compete for a national banner. McMaster will be heading to Toronto as well, along with Ryerson, this years host of the national tournament. The Mustangs have not been to the national tournament since 2011, where they finished in sixth.

“I think we're really going to focus on starting sets efficiently. Nearly every set we started at a deficit and we battled back nearly through all of them,” said Bartlett. “When you're playing very good teams, and they will be very good teams next weekend, we can't start off 5-1 and expect to be in a position to win at the end.”

The U Sports national tournament will start on March 17, when the Mustangs will play their first quarterfinal game. The tournament will conclude on March 19.

Claire is a third year Media, Information and Technoculture student. She is a first year sports editor at the Gazette. Have a question? Email her at claire.palmer@westerngazette.ca

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