VANCOUVER — As of this writing, they are 16-0, and a team so thoroughly connected that all the fun they seem to be having with each other is no illusion.
“We don’t run a high-performance program,” states Little Flower Academy senior girls volleyball head coach Ross Ballard of his unassuming but deadly assemblage of Angels, who this past weekend cut a swath through the entire field to capture the elite division of UBC’s annual 44-team Mizuno Invitational. “We run a high school program. Our girls have a lot on their plates, and we try to make sure it’s balanced.”
In these days of ultra-specialization, the words of Ballard, a former Canadian national team player, are as refreshing as these first cool mornings of our new fall season.
We won’t pretend for a second that the sport doesn’t matter to this current vintage of Angels, whose heartbreak last season came in a B.C. Triple A semifinal championship loss to Campbell River’s Timberline Wolves.
Yet after graduating five key seniors from a Little Flower squad that eventually finished third in the province, Ballard went into the new season wondering just how quickly players both new and old would adapt to new roles, and just how long it would take for chemistry to reveal itself.
Turns out, it happened in no time at all.
“I have to say this about the team,” begins Ballard whose team opened as AAA’s preseason No, 2 and should hit No. 1 when the new poll is released later this week. “They are the most together team I have ever had the pleasure of coaching.”
Case in point? Ballard got his answer on the long ride back from a friendly in the eastern-most reaches of the Fraser Valley.
“We played at Mission, and then the whole way home there was singing on the bus,” he laughs.”The whole way. It’s one of those things that puts a smile on your face. Over the years, my teams have won quite a few things, but I have never had such a wonderful, energetic feeling from a group of kids before. And then you see them on the court.”
Still, playing seven best-of-three matches over two days can be a grind. These Angels, however, showed from the outset that they were a team to be reckoned with.
After opening pool play Friday at UBC with a win over PoCo’s Riverside Rapids, LFA drew pre-season AAAA No 1 Earl Marriott of Surrey.
The Angels won the first set 25-15. The Mariners won the second 25-14. LFA led 12-1 in the third, but Earl Marriott came back to tie it 12-12 before the Angels prevailed 16-14.
It’s not a surprise, in B.C. high school volleyball, to see lower-tiered and lower-ranked teams beat higher-tiered and higher-ranked teams.
Yet at such an early juncture of the 2018 season, with an untested rotation trying to find some traction, the victory for Little Flower was enormous.
“For my girls, I think it really gave them the belief that it doesn’t matter who they play against,” began Ballard, “and that if we just focus on how we play volleyball, how we make nothing easy, that we have a shot against anyone in the province.”
The wins continued, including over the likes of Brentwood College and Kelowna.
Then, in the final, Little Flower Academy faced two-time defending B.C. AAAA champion Belmont of Victoria.
“You just can’t replicate that kind of experience,” Ballard said of playing such a highly-decorated foe in a tourney final in a U Sports gymnasium as a capper to six previous match wins over the past two days of play. “We controlled the first set with our blocking defence, and they weren’t used to getting dug, so we put them on their heels and took advantage.
“And when we finally won,” he said, “it was with a really mature style of volleyball. No panic. No anger. Just very calm and energetic play.”
The players themselves?
It’s hard to name one without naming the entire team.
They are, on the whole, under-sized when placed up against the vast majority of their competition.
Yet their effectiveness has come from their desire to play hard in celebration of each other.
“We’re not so much focused on winning and losing, but more this year compared to last, on starting matches more aggressively,” says Ballard. “We don’t want to be passengers, and this group has been marvellous in the way they have started. We’re not that big, but we are hard to play against because we’re consistent and we will make you work for it.”
Consider all of their combined elements, and while Little Flower’s Angels are a wonderfully skilled and talented team, their essence lies in the fact they seem to be one of those teams whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
Or maybe not, because who really knows what happens when skill and physical stature alone aren’t taken as the final arbiters of success?
“We lost five Grade 12’s (to graduation) and for the most part, the leaders on this team (last season) were the older girls,” says Ballard. “So while I knew we would have a quality team, I had no idea what to expect. After the first couple of weeks, it’s getting clearer.”
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