The Mennonite Educational Institute senior boys volleyball team capped a decade of dominance with a dramatic comeback victory in the AA provincial title game on Saturday evening in Kelowna.
The top-seeded Eagles were flying high heading into the gold medal match against the College Heights Cougars of Prince George, having dropped just one set all tournament long.
The Cougars stunned the favourites, though, winning the first two sets 25-21 and 25-23 to push the Eagles to the brink. College Heights had already engineered one upset, knocking off No. 2-ranked Langley Christian in the semifinals, and they were fast closing in on a second.
“It’s tough to go into a provincial final on such an emotional high, and then drop the first two sets,” Eagles head coach Jeff Stel noted. “The guys wanted it so bad, they got tense.
“I told them (after the second set) I believed they could still win, and I looked in their eyes and said, ‘You’re a good team.’ I said it about 10 times to each player. I think that just relaxed them, and then they went out and fired on all cylinders.”
With their backs against the wall, the Eagles rallied, winning the last three sets 25-16, 25-19, 15-9.
The epic rally extended MEI’s remarkable senior boys volleyball dynasty, as they won their eighth AA crown in the past 10 seasons. The two seasons where the Eagles didn’t didn’t climb to the top step of the podium, they won silver (2004) and bronze (2010).
“I was getting a little nervous,” Eagles left side Jeremy Lieuwen admitted with a chuckle afterward, reflecting on the period of crisis after the second set. “We had to start fighting, or we were going home.
“I think a lot of it was guys getting past their nerves and settling in. Our passing got better, our serving got better, and that really helped. With that came confidence, as we started seeing results.”
Lieuwen earned tournament MVP honours, and Stel said his dynamic play was instrumental in the comeback.
“It was probably his best game of the tournament,” the Eagles bench boss said. “He jumped a few inches higher and was able to hit the ball harder. He really had that drive to pull his team together – to be that physical and emotional leader to take the pressure off the younger guys.”
Ben Lieuwen, Jeremy’s younger brother, was named a first team all-star, while setter Caleb Konrad and middle Jordan Schmidt were second-teamers.
SEASON TO REMEMBER FOR MEI V-BALLERS
The senior boys’ triumph capped a terrific season for the MEI volleyball program as a whole.
The previous week, the Eagles junior boys took bronze at provincials, and the Grade 8 boys won the Fraser Valley championship – the first time a Valley tourney had ever been staged at that level. The Grade 8s beat Fraser Heights in straight sets in the final, and Daniel Siemens was named tournament MVP and Kaden Gamache was an all-star.
The MEI senior girls also qualified for the provincials after winning bronze at the Fraser Valleys. They finished seventh at the B.C. AAA tourney, held in Parksville.
KNIGHTS FINISH FIFTH
Both Abbotsford Christian senior teams made it to the B.C.’s, and the Knights boys turned in a solid fifth-place finish.
The Abby Christian boys struggled during pool play, going 0-3, but came to life in the playoffs, winning three of four games. Their lone playoff loss came in the quarter-finals to eventual champ MEI. Trevor Dykshoorn was named a second-team all-star, while Dan Vaags and Wes Dewaal were honourable mentions.
The Knights girls finished 13th at AA provincials, held at Notre Dame Secondary in Vancouver. Jordyn Visser picked up a team all-star award.
YALE BOYS 11th AT AAA PROVINCIALS
The Yale Secondary senior boys finished 11th in the AAA draw in Kelowna. The Lions won all three matches during pool play, then beat Delta in their playoff opener. Yale saw its run on the championship side of the bracket come to an end in the round of 16, as they fell in three sets to Oak Bay, who would go on to win the gold medal.