Winning provincials was a golden moment for the St. Albert Skyhawks.
The first volleyball championship banner in St. Albert Catholic High School history was awarded to the lady Skyhawks at the 3A provincials in Bonnyville after sweeping the St. Joseph’s Ceniahs in Saturday’s final.
It’s unconfirmed but the Skyhawks are believed to be the first St. Albert High School team to win provincial honours in volleyball.
“It’s kind of surreal because our school has been such a big league basketball focused school and with the volleyball team it kind of feels like it puts our sport out there now,” said co-captain Julia Donnelly.
Two years ago the Skyhawks settled for silver and last year they finished fifth.
Donnelly and co-captain Jamie Bain are among five returnees on the roster and they are the last Skyhawks remaining from the team’s 2013 provincial debut.
“We’re in Grade 12 so it’s our last year and we finally did. We finally were able to get that banner,” Donnelly said.
“It’s the icing on the cake and the cherry on top,” Bain chimed in.
The Skyhawks tied the bow on the ultimate prize with their 44th victory in 48 matches in the metro Edmonton league (14-1, 44 GW/15 GL), tournaments and provincials.
“We were really happy. Some people were about to start crying. It was a good moment,” Donnelly said. “It feels like our hard work all year finally paid off. We’ve been rewarded I guess.”
The Skyhawks dropped only two sets in seven best-of-three matches at provincials after going undefeated in 14 division one matches before losing the metro final in five gruelling sets to the Jasper Place Rebels.
“The girls showed that they could constantly improve. We had a lot of adversity. We had some injuries. Lots of girls played different positions that they’re not used to. We just really came together as a team. I used every player I had and they really deserved it,” said head coach Jocelyn Blair. “They played well all weekend and I’m really proud of them. We’ve had some good tournaments but it’s definitely the best we’ve played as a group. We had contributions from every position, which is something we had all season.
“When we needed to play well we did and that’s why we won.”
Blair knew the Skyhawks were destined for greatness when they persevered against the Harry Ainlay Titans in league play Oct. 21 after winning the 21st annual Lions Western Canadian Challenge tournament.
“They fought back against us and we ended up beating them in five. That’s when I realized we could win it all. We could win against the odds when we weren’t playing well and we can get contributions from areas where we usually didn’t rely on,” Blair said. “We were really well rounded. Our starting lineup was balanced, unlike a lot of other teams, and I knew we could do it. We were relentless. We never gave up on a match.”
Donnelly, 17 also sensed the Skyhawks were something special as they racked up the wins in league play.
“Halfway through the season when we were like 6-0 we realized we were actually one of the best teams in the province and we could win provincials,” said the right-side power.
Bain, 17, credited the team’s cohesiveness and skill level as the deciding factors in the season of excellence.
“We worked really well together. A lot of teams had one or two players that were really good but we were really deep. We also had a lot of talent throughout the roster and that helped us a lot,” said the super-sharp setter.
The Skyhawks also put their last loss behind them before provincials, and it was a toughie. The 25-9, 23-25, 21-25, 25-21, 11-15 result against Jasper Place not only ended an undefeated season in league play but their quest for the first division one/premier championship in team history.
“We took some time off for a few days and let the girls relax and try and get over it. They were really upset. We hadn’t lost and we hadn’t lost to JP for a while either,” Blair said. “After that we spent time trying to rehabbing them to get back to where they were playing again. We focused on the basics. We did a lot of ball control and receiving because those were the things that were going to win provincials for us.”
The Skyhawks also welcomed back Grade 12 middle Alexis Anderson to the starting lineup in Saturday’s playoffs after injuring her left ankle during a play at the net on the second rally in the first set of the final.
“Having Alexis getting injured (in the final) was a really crushing blow,” said Blair, noting that Donnelly hurt her ankle in practice before provincials and her jumping ability was uncertain when the tournament started Thursday.
The Skyhawks lost one set in pool play while beating the Catholic Central Cougars of Lethbridge (South) 25-23, 27-25, St. Paul Saints (North East) 25-20, 25-17, Springbank Phoenix of Calgary (South Central) 25-19, 15-25, 15-7, Peace Wapiti Academy Titans of Grande Prairie (North West wild card) 25-8, 25-23 and the H.J. Cody Lakers of Sylvan Lake (Central wild card) 25-12, 25-11.
The semifinal was another three-set tussle against Springbank. The Skyhawks lost the opener before prevailing 15-12 in the deciding set.
“Springbank had a few really, really good players from the outside, very tall and dynamic,” Blair said. “They brought a lot of offence, especially from the power side, but once our girls adapted to that we served them really aggressively. We were able to get them out of system and use our entire team.
“The reason we won provincials is because we had offence from every single position, our middles and our right sides. Everybody contributed and against Springbank we were able to zero in on just a couple of players they were setting all the time so we did a very good job of adjusting.”
The semifinal was basically the final.
“They were the toughest team there,” Donnelly said. “In the third set we were going back and forth switching points and when it was like 10-10 we just pulled away.”
The final against the Ceniahs, the North West reps, was a two-set decision that lacked the drama from the previous match.
“The semi was so close so we were so thankful that we made it to the final,” Bain said. “I feel like we didn’t play that well in the final but we still won.”
“We hadn’t seen them for a long time since (the final of the WCC tournament in Morinville). They had improved a lot so we weren’t really sure what to expect,” Blair said. “We had a bit of trouble with our receive game and in the second set we were down 11-7 and I took a timeout and then we went on an 11 point run to take the lead. Julia Donnelly was serving and she did a really great job so at that point the outcome wasn’t really in jeopardy.”
“I was just focused on putting my serve in. I wasn’t trying to make it a super tough serve but we ended up going on a run, which helped out a lot,” Donnelly added.
It was 24-20 when the Skyhawks sealed the deal.
“The girls were excited and almost relieved because we’ve been so close to winning before. We were really close to winning the city championship and it was heartbreaking for them when they lost,” Blair said. “It was something they really earned. It was like, ‘OK, finally we did it.’”
It was extra special for Blair to share the moment with her dad, Curt, a longtime teacher and volleyball coach at St. Albert High who guided the team to provincials last year before playing the role as the elder statesman on the bench as his daughter’s assistant.
“It was really awesome. I know his school has never won before for volleyball so that was really exciting to share it with him and know that I helped him and his school achieve something pretty big. He’s always been a great role model for me in volleyball, and obviously in my life, so I wouldn’t ask for a better assistant for sure,” said Blair, an outstanding Alberta Panda during her university career after leading the Bellerose Bulldogs to a fourth-place finish at the 4A provincials in Grade 12.