Despite extreme cold and blizzard-like conditions outside, 600 fans packed into PAC Feb. 14 to witness a thrilling, tension-filled, five-set quarter-final match that saw the Warriors’ men’s volleyball team defeat the Western Mustangs to advance to the OUA’s final four. </p>
After taking a tightly contested first set 25-23, the Warriors dominated the second set 25-16. With momentum on their side, it seemed as if the Warriors were going to cruise to a relatively easy and efficient straight-sets victory, but this proved not to be the case.
The veteran Mustangs squad — responsible for knocking the Warriors out of the playoffs for four consecutive seasons before this one — quickly regrouped and took advantage of mistakes committed by the Warriors in the third and fourth sets to take the frames 25-23 and 25-22, respectively.
It seemed as if nerves got the best of the Warriors’ young squad. According to head coach Chris Lawson, “tight” and nervous play was responsible for some of the critical errors committed and the lapses in concentration that occurred when it came time to execute.
“I think [Western] is a very experienced team. They won silver medal in nationals last year,” Lawson said. “This is a team that’s used to being in the playoffs, some really tough guys, lots of veterans there … We’re very young so we got a little nervous, [we] started to see that end line, their veterans turned on a little bit and we got tight.”
Jordan Dyck’s and Aiden Simone’s efforts were instrumental in a do-or-die fifth set. They combined to collect six of the final nine points down the stretch to help the Warriors seal an exciting set (15-12) and the match. Zachary Doherty was up to his usual ways, collecting 18 kills and three aces in the match.
Lawson alluded to how key the crowd’s support was in that tense, final, and deciding set to help push the Warriors to victory.
“Absolutely … I love the support we’re getting,” Lawson said. “People want to watch good competition … We’re battling; we’ve been in the playoffs for eight straight years. People have come to expect good entertainment when they come … That was entertaining.”
The Warriors were in a season-long dog race with the Ryerson Rams for second seed in the OUA standings — which they would eventually lose — forcing them to settle for third. Their third-seed finish in the standings meant a quarter-final matchup with the sixth-seeded Mustangs, instead of a quarter-final matchup against Guelph — the lower seventh seed — if they had clinched the second seed.
Lawson believes facing a tougher opponent like the Mustangs — a veteran team who’ve proven to be a “psychological barrier” for the Warriors over the years — may prove to be an advantage come their OUA final four match as they try to advance deeper into the playoffs.
To prepare for this upcoming weekend’s semi-final match versus the York Lions, Lawson believes it’s better to stick to routine and regular preparation to make this game seem less daunting than it is.
“The important thing is to just make as it much as any other game as possible … you try to make things different, then that creates tension around it being a special game, and we don’t want it to be a special game,” Lawson said. “We don’t want it to be special, we just want it to be a regular game that we’re trying to win, like we always do.”
When asked whether or not his expectations are higher for this year’s team — who are younger and less experienced — than last year’s veteran, experienced team, coach Lawson said, “I think their peak is going to be higher. Last year’s team was old, veteran guys who worked their way up to that level. This is a younger group of guys that are maybe a bit more physically talented, but they just need experience. Their peak is going to be a higher peak than the guys before them.”
Lawson added that he believes this team is building a “winning tradition,” meaning they not only expect to make the playoffs and compete, but also win.