The Western Mustangs women's volleyball team had the experience of a lifetime over the Christmas break.
The team, which is currently undefeated in Ontario University Athletics (OUA) play, arrived in Europe on Dec. 27 to travel to Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona.
The team first arrived in the Netherlands, where they participated in the 75th annual Christmas Volleyball Tournament in the town of Assen. The Mustangs faced a wide variety of teams with varying skill levels in the tournament which provided the perfect opportunity for the team to earn valuable playing experience against great competition.
"We played in a tournament in the Netherlands and really there were seven teams in our pool and the level really varied," said Mustangs head coach Melissa Bartlett. "The best team we played was very strong down towards some of the weaker teams that were really just some old women who threw a team together. The competition level was pretty varied at the tournament and going in we didn't know what to expect."
According to third-year outside hitter Katie McKenna, while playing in the tournament, the team spent their nights sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a Dutch elementary. These accommodations received mixed reactions from members of the team.
While the team did not perform up to their usual standard in the tournament due to jet lag, they still enjoyed their time spent in the Netherlands.
“We hadn’t lost a game in a while and lost on the first day to Acadia University, who play in the [Atlantic University Sport]," said McKenna. "So after that tournament we had fun in the town but in terms of volleyball a lot of us were kind of disappointed and didn't like the way that felt."
After competing in the Christmas Volleyball Tournament the team travelled to Amsterdam, where the team visited museums, spent time at the Heineken Experience, toured the city's canals and celebrated New Year's Eve.
The Mustangs then left Amsterdam, spending a day in Paris before travelling to Barcelona to take on three professional volleyball teams. One of the teams they faced was FC Barcelona, who are ranked fifth in the Spanish Superliga Femenina de Voleiboland. While the team was not expecting to pull out any wins the opportunity to play top tier competition was invaluable.
"I think our last match in Spain was definitely my favourite memory from the trip," said Bartlett. "It was the best team we played by far and I think we kind of rose to the challenge. We played a few different lineups and in each of the lineups did really well and showed a little bit of our depth. It was a good opportunity because everybody got to play and it was great to see everybody in a competitive environment."
While the trip was a culturally enriching experience for the Mustangs it also allowed the team to prepare for the second half of the OUA season. The Mustangs look like a title frontrunner and their strong competition overseas can only help them moving forward.
"I think the main reason we went was to play against teams that were going to challenge us," said Bartlett. "The reality is that we haven't lost a game in over two months so we did a good amount of losing overseas which was good for us."
"There were difficulties in not having much sleep before the first tournament and sometimes the buses were late so we had to play through some adversity which was good for our team for the long run," she added.
On Sunday the Mustangs beat Windsor 3—0 to improve to 9—0 on the season. While the team isn't openly stating there's a "championship or bust" mentality surrounding the program, the expectations are high after two consecutive OUA bronze medals.
And with a post-Christmas schedule that will see the Mustangs hit the road for six of their final 10 games the team benefitted from playing overseas over the holiday.
"We've always said that after Christmas break three things could happen," said Bartlett about her team moving forward. "Either things could get worse, things could stay the same or things could get better. We want to get better ... having this type of competitive experience going into the post-Christmas part of our season is beneficial."