Western Mustangs men's volleyball head coach Jim Sage called it the most difficult match of his 19-year career.
Fifth-year middle Mike Choja admitted tears were shed in the locker room after the loss that ended their season and sent them packing.
It was a brutal loss in a winnable game, a 3–2 defeat at the hands of the Ryerson Rams that saw Western go up 2-0 before letting the final three sets slip away.
Heading into the game, the 11-6 Mustangs were confident facing off with a 12-6 Ryerson squad that they had beaten 3-1 on Oct. 30.
And that confidence was evident coming out of the gate, as the Mustangs took a heavily contested first set 25–17 thanks to a 9-2 run after a timeout.
That momentum carried into the second set, as the Mustangs went up 16-11 before a Ryerson comeback chipped away at the Western lead. The Mustangs were able to take the second set 25-22, putting Ryerson in a metaphorical choke hold.
"We executed really well the first two sets," said Choja. "It took a little bit to get Ryerson moving, we kept up a good fight and were very much in a position to win the match but a couple bounces and we find ourselves on the wrong end of it."
Ryerson clawed back in the third set as the teams traded points until a 5-0 run to end the set gave the Rams the 25-20 win.
The fourth set saw more of the same as the teams shared blows before Ryerson stole a 25-22 win to tie the match up at two sets apiece.
"I think we could have served a little strong in the third set," said Choja on what let the Rams get back into the match. "From a passing perspective they went on a couple runs that provided a little bit of a cushion for them to exploit their lead. In the third set we were up, they go on a big run and at that point in a set it becomes difficult to recover your losses."
"We tried to focus on hitting the reset button, win or lose, and I think we were a little bit shaken in the fourth set because it was so close and so attainable," he added.
The Mustangs fought to regain momentum, holding a 14-11 lead late in the set. However, the Rams were too much to handle on their home court, as an 18-16 victory ended Western's season and returned Ryerson to the OUA Final Four.
"Might be the toughest match in my career in terms of trying to get over it," said Sage on the emotion in the room after the loss. "Just because I felt we won it and just because of a couple referee calls or execution, it wasn't meant to be."
The loss marked the end of the university careers of Choja, Bryn Ramsay and Chris Newcombe. While it's a heartbreaking way to end a career, Choja believes the younger members of the program can learn from the loss and come back stronger next season.
"To be honest I didn't think I was going to become an alumni that fast," said Choja. "I had bigger dreams and bigger aspirations for this year and unfortunately they didn't come true. But at the same time, for the younger guys, it's an opportunity to learn how to play and succeed in those kinds of environments and to use it as a learning opportunity to further grow the program and continue to establish ourselves as a powerhouse in the league."
For those players who will return next season, like third-year setter Matt Hooker, next season can't come soon enough.
The program will return a strong nucleus that can use the devastating loss to Ryerson as motivation for the 2017-18 campaign.
"It'll definitely be a learning experience for us to close out games, which we had a couple opportunities to do," said Hooker. "But I think we're confident with the returning group of guys we have, it's a strong and tight knit group so definitely looking forward to next season already."