LANGLEY — It’s special to arrive before your time, yet as the Belmont Bulldogs can tell you definitively, it’s a status which immediately demands an encore performance.
And in sport, just as in life, you reap what you sow.
On Saturday at the Langley Events Centre, despite a pressurized environment of expectation which had dogged them for a year, Victoria’s Belmont Bulldogs arrived back at the harvest, sweeping North Vancouver’s Handsworth Royals in straight sets (25-12, 25-16, 25-16) to repeat as Big Kahuna B.C. senior girls AAAA volleyball champions.
“They have known since the ball hit the floor for the final point at last year’s B.C. final that everyone would be expecting them to win it again,” sais Belmont head coach Mike Toakley.
“No one was graduating (from the 2016 champs),” he continued. “So it was an expectation like ‘OK, just hand us the trophy’ and the girls have dealt with that for the last year. It’s nerve-wracking. We were just supposed to win easily and we just needed to start planning the parade route.”
Of course nothing is ever that easy.
In fact Toakley remembered how tough it was to shake one particular foe last season en route to the championships last season.
And when the 2017 bracket produced Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers again, this time one round earlier in the Sweet 16, the first litmus test has been placed in front of Victoria’s finest.
GOING TO THE WELL… AGAIN
“Just like the year before, they were giving us all we could handle,” Toakley said of the Panthers, who despite trailing the Bulldogs 2-1 in the fourth set of the opening round of championship bracket play, looked on the verge of forcing that fifth-and-deciding mini set every coach deems a 50-50 proposition.
“We were down 20-11 in the fourth set,” confirms Toakley. “If we didn’t win, we’d get to the fifth set with no momentum, and from there it really is a coin toss. And with a loss? The best you can do at that point is to finish ninth.”
That’s how close to the quick the repeat, plan-the-parade journey actually got.
Yet somehow, the Bulldogs went on a 14-2 run to close out the fourth set 25-22 and won it in the fifth, setting the stage for wins over Van Tech on Friday evening, Semiahmoo on Saturday morning and then Handsworth later that day in the finals.
“It’s a temperament they have always had as a group,” said Toakley. “Other teams might have pointed fingers. But they understood that they could be nothing but positive. They weren’t even thinking of the fifth set.”
And in keeping with the theme of arriving before your time, Grade 11 setter Taylee Pomponio — a star last season as a Grade 10 — played a huge role in the rally against Lord Tweedsmuir, serving 10 straight times, those serves coming with just enough attitude to keep the Panthers off their game and allow Belmont to attack from its wheelhouse.
“She was huge from the service line and she was the hero of the comeback,” admitted Toakley. “Of course they weren’t all aces, but she kept Lord Tweedsmuir on its heels over a 10-point run.”
Belief is ingrained, and as Toakley thought about the events of the title-repeat-run he couldn’t help but think back to younger days for his team, more specifically a day when they were gathered in their club uniforms at pre-season camp.
“I can remember that they were at a camp and that Josh Howatson (the former Oak Bay and Trinity Western superstar) came by their practice,” Toakley begins. “He told the story of how he played on a team that was behind and made just a phenomenal comeback, and that they did it by focusing on one point at a time, and not getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment. When you do that, you realize that mentally, it’s all doable.”
WHEN THE FEATHER TRUMPS THE HAMMER
Toakley has invested time into coaching his team, and the resume from a W’s and Ls standpoint has been beyond reproach for two straight seasons.
Yet aside from that, coaches want their kids to be students of the game, players who gain a deeper knowledge of not only their sport, but of human understanding and all the ways that mental acumen can, in so many instances, trump acts of physical bravado.
And so as the coach watched his star, senior and soon-to-be repeat B.C. AAAA MVP Savannah Purdy, open Saturday’s championship match, he got the best indication yet as to the total player she has grown to become.
“Savannah is a power hitter and a real blaster,” begins Toakley, “but the first point of the final, she scores by hitting a perfect roll shot. She went up and calmly placed it right behind the block. So many young players have gotten away with blasting the ball but she has always been a thoughtful player.”
It was a feather instead of a hammer.
In football, it’s a shovel pass for a huge catch-and-run.
In basketball, it’s a backspin-fueled floater over a shot-blocking forward by a guard who has penetrated into the paint but suddenly faces a forest of arms.
“Savannah knows that a variety of shots can keep a team off balance,” Toakley adds. “You would never see that coming to start a championship match. But for all I know, she had the whole thing planned out.”
THE TRICK OF THE SPIRIT STICK
There were so many other highlights for a Belmont team which graduates seven of its 11 players as part of the Class of 2018.
Purdy was a deserving MVP as she led her team past a Handsworth team led by its own superstar, first-team all-star setter Kayla Oxland.
And before the hat is tipped to a more anonymous member of the Belmont squad, it goes without saying that the UBC-bound Oxland had a special high school career.
“Kayla is the ultimate leader,” said Toakley. “She put that team on her back at times. Their calling card is how well they pass the ball and play defence and that starts with her. They play phenomenal defence and the way I describe it, it’s like playing tennis against a brick wall. The ball always comes back to you.”
That unsung Belmont hero?
It’s hard not to mention the efforts of senior Miranda Cyr, the team’s multi-skilled senior libero.
Cyr was actually picked to the tournament’s first all-star team, something of a rarity since the defence-only position is represented by its own Top Libero award.
“For a libero to get that recognition tells you a lot, and I think the all-star committee got it right,” said Toakley. “Miranda was like a second setter on the floor for us and she made fantastic digs. When the setter played the first ball, she became the setter and she distributed it. The committee recognized that she was a wonderful passer and also a real leader.”
Collectively, the Bulldogs are about the details.
And details are only revealed when you love what you do.
Soon, Belmont Secondary will hold a pep rally for the team, and it’s at that time, Toakley says, that the team’s Spirit Stick, a nondescript, broom-handle like piece of wood lovingly adorned by team members, will be officially retired.
It’s been their talisman for two years, and it has represented a part of a team that so often gets overlooked.
Belief in each other, unconditionally, adds up to believing in things that in many ways are out of our control.
The Belmont Bulldogs were never afraid to do just that, and for its graduating seniors, it’s added up to a storybook ending.
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