Friday, March 16, 2012

Season Summary and Coach's Reflection

As I close the books on the 2011-12 season, I thought it was a good time to write my final blog of the year. This season has been like no other. We kicked off the year with a roster of 18 players. Many (including some current players) thought it was too many. For me, it made sense. We had a number of injury variables that were yet to sort themselves out, we knew we could be losing as many as 8 or 9 players after this year, and most importantly, we didn't feel there was anyone in the mix who couldn't or shouldn't play at this level.

With six new players on the squad and 5 fifth years and 4 fourth years, we knew the gap would be wide and the needs of the two groups would be different. However; all along the goal was to keep pushing the top guys forward and at the same time providing a strong developmental opportunity for the new athletes, because they needed to be ready for 2012-13.

We didn't play very well in our opening couple weekends. We actually dropped four of our first five exhibition games - 2 to Laval and then UNB and Western at our own tournament, before taking Montreal in the 7th place match.

The next weekend, things picked up significantly, although we didn't have Joren Zeeman in the line-up. We played Alberta to a 15-11 fifth set loss, then beat both Calgary and Regina, to make it to the Dino Cup Final. Our passing broke down in the final and we really didn't perform very well. Nevertheless though, I felt we were improving and were ready for the league start.

I am afraid I was wrong. We started out 1-3 after the first couple weeks and were 5-4 at Christmas. We made some line-up changes along the way, simplified the offense a little, changed our approach to serving and just put way more emphasis into our passing game and then things started to turn around.

We went out to Langley, B.C. for a full week after Christams and had the opportunity to train with and play matches against Trinity Western. That helped us a lot, I believe.

When we got back things really picked up. A new determination to put it together and earn our way into the Nationals, rather than settling for being the CIS host team.

In the second half, we dropped 2 matches - both in 5 sets. In both, we were leading and in a position to close out the matches, and didn't finish. Finishing - playing tough in the 'red zone' (after 20 and after 12 in the 5th) became the basis for discussion.

As the season progressed, we got better and better. Our top guys were performing at an exceptional level. Our setter was confident and distributing the ball really well, our serving was putting other teams in trouble and our passing game really stepped up. Our final league weekend was huge for us. We took both Western and Windsor 3-0 at home and those are two teams we lost to in the first half.

We finished the second half with a 7 & 2 record - added to our 5 & 4 first half - so 12 & 6 overall, which was good enough for third place in the OUA. Third also meant we got to host a playoff game, and stay off Western's side of the draw.

That quarter final playoff was not exactly what we planned for. Up until that point, the injury bug had stayed away. Perhaps that virus had done enough damage to us in previous seasons..... but no, it came again. Alex Oneid went down in practice, just days before the quarter final. He had been playing great, so that could have had the potential to be devastating.

Guelph came out firing on our court and we seemed tentative. Perhaps it was that we were missing Alex's energy. We actually got down 2 sets to 0! With our backs to the wall, there seemed to be a change in determination. We bounced back to win 25-19, 25-13 and 15-8. We got better every set and with the support of a strong home crowd, we got it done and packed our bags for the OUA Final Four.

Heading into the OUA showdown, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would we be the Queen's that got behind 2-0 to Guelph or would we be the team that took them 3-0 when it mattered? We were up against McMaster in the semis. Both our league games went to 5, both our league games saw us in a position to win (even serving and swinging for the match), and both our league games were McMaster victories.

We came out strong. We took the first set 25-19. Mac fought back to take the second 25-23, and then it was like this new determination hit our guys. Our passing was solid. Our middle connection was working great, and our go-to guy on the right (Joren Zeeman) was hot. Set 3 and 4 went our way - 25-18 and 25-17. A solid performance all around.

Since Western had taken care of Waterloo 3-0 in their semi, we new they were playing well and that the final would be a war - in purple land.

Western played a strong first set - and won 25-22. We responded with a 25-22 win of our own. In the third, both teams were executing well and it could have gone either way, but Western prevailed 27-25 to go ahead 2-1. Once again, with with our backs to the wall our boys responded. Joren, Mike Amoroso and Niko Rukavina all went on a tear - and we dominated that set - to a 25-16 finish - and forced the match to a fifth set.

Drawing on championship experience from 2010, the boys were solid. We served Western into some trouble, not allowing them to run the middle as much as they would have liked, and we came away with a 15-12 victory and our sixth OUA banner since 2000, and our second in three years. The boys were happy, but with little time to celebrate, we headed home to prepare for the CIS Championships. We were excited to host at home as the OUA Champions!

That result garnered us a 5th seed in the 8 team event and a first round match against the Alberta Golden Bears. We had seen the Bears both at our tournament in October and at the Dino Cup and knew they would be a formidable opponent. In the week prior to the Nationals, they were ranked #4 in the National Top Ten, while we were ranked #10.

None of that mattered. We were at home. We were playing really well. We got wind that their top player (and his replacement) were injured, so in some ways, we felt the stars were aligning. That's sport though and those same injury problems had taken their toll on us, just earlier in the cycle. We had a job to do. It had been a long time since an OUA team had broken through that first round. We knew we needed to do that to put ourselves in a postion to fight for a medal, which was our goal not only through this year, but all through the cycle.

We had a meeting with our Sports Psychologist to talk about how we would manage ourselves in the CIS tournament. The big crowds, the pressure, the home court - everything. With so much to be excited about, it could have been easy to be over the top. We needed to manage that well.

The atmosphere at Nationals was unbelieveable. We stayed 'as loose as a sail' and allowed the energy in the gym to push us along in a positive way. We played with good focus, I thought. We played with confidence. We passed well, which was an indicator all year - as to whether we were in the right mind frame. We had a hard fought first set and won it - 25-23. Joren and our middles, in particular, were really good. That seemed to really get the crowd going. They started riding a couple of the Bears hard from the stands. It seemed to have an effect. We kept going - and won 25-18. To Alberta's credit, they didn't succumb. They battled back to take the third 27-25 and force a fourth. I knew if they took the 4th it would be tough for us. I knew this set was crucial. Another 2-pointer. This time, it went our way 25-23. The win sent the Bears to the consolation side, and us to the National Final Four. Step one.... done!

Our last two matches were tough - no doubt about it. Trinity Western, the #1 seed, and eventual champions were on a mission to repeat. They served very well and forced us out of system most of the match. We needed to pass well to have a chance. We went down pretty hard - with scores of 20,13 and 14. They neutralized almost all our weapons. We had some success at Mike Amoroso's hand and with an occasional setter dump, but the poor showing, more than the loss was going to be hard to recover from. We were sorry to disappoint our fans. The house was packed! They even turned people away..... which was a first for an ARC event.

We needed time to regroup. We still had a chance to win a medal. That had to be our focus. Our final game of the year - a chance at the bronze - but standing in our way of success were the Manitoba Bisons. They were the #2 seed and the only team in the country to take a match off Trinity Western this season.

We definitely competed better than in the semis. We played them pretty even - we were even in kills, digs, blocks.... the only category though that we outright beat them in was unforced errors. We made 10 more than they did. When you look at the final scores, those 10 errors were very costly. We dropped the first two sets: 25-22 and 25-23, took the third: 25-19 and then gave up the fourth - 25-18. We couldn't contain their rightside. He had an exceptional game. So the Bisons bronzed and we fell short.

When you set such a high goal, and fall short, it is disappointing. Yet, I find myself not disappointed. I am happy. I remind myself about the 1-3 start, the 5-4 standing at Christmas, and the 3rd place OUA finish. I remind myself that we were down 2-0 in the conference quarters. I remind myself that we were #10 in Canada the week before. I remind myself that we went in as the #5 seed. I remind myself we came out as the #4 finisher and that it was Queen's best finish ever and tied the OUA's best finish in 20 years.

When you put all that together, we have lots of reasons to celebrate. The season was a huge success. The CIS tournament was a huge success and for the 8 graduating players - their careers were a huge success. I am proud of this team and how far they came.

I also want to thank all our coaching and support staff for a great year. The support that goes into building a program to this level spans many layers - you know who you are - and please know how grateful we all are for your contributions! You share our success.

Go Gaels Go!!!