Clippers cap great weekend with silver medals

Matthew Gourlie
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Red Deer College sweeps its way to CCAA men's volleyball title

There were plenty of silver linings after a golden weekend for Briercrest College and Seminary.

The Briercrest College Clippers walked off the YaraCentre floor disappointed following their 3-0 (25-20, 25-19, 25-18) loss to the Red Deer College Kings in the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association's men's national volleyball final. That disappointment was tempered by the sight of a packed crowd of yellow-clad fans — more fans than there are students at the college — cheering the Clippers on for three days as they earned their highest placing at a CCAA national event in school history.

"It will feel OK tomorrow," Nigel Mullan, the Clippers head coach and the school's athletic director, said following the loss. "Ultimately what we want out of our team and our athletic department is to push Briercrest forward. This was a great weekend to see what Briercrest can offer, not just athletically, but as a school. The guys were overwhelmed by the support."

The Clippers beat the second- and third-seeded teams to advance to their first national final — in any CCAA sport. Getting over their conference rivals was just too much to ask.

"My expectations were high going in as a coach. To finally get it done feels a little surreal at the moment," said Red Deer College head coach Aaron Schulha who won a national title with the Kings as a player and was named CCAA coach of the year. "It's a testament to the work of my athletes. There's nothing more you can ask for as a head coach than to have them play their best match of the season in the final match of the season."

The Kings lost the 2013 final to Nipissing in straight sets. That served as a motivator as the Kings finished 17-1 in the regular season and rolled to the ACAC title.

"It was a sour feeling and I definitely feel for Briercrest being on the other side of that match. We knew our goals and we pushed for it all year," said Kings outside hitter Tim Finnigan, who was his team's most valuable player in the final and is an CCAA All-Canadian.

Schulha felt his team was a little too comfortable going into the national final a year ago after a pair of three-game sweeps en route. This year they dropped their opening game of the semifinal to Columbia Bible College before rallying for a 3-1 win.

"I'm really proud for our returning athletes — who played very poorly in the final last year, to be honest — and lost 3-0. Tonight was a bit of redemption," said Schulha. "We had some adversity early against CBC. We lost the first set, then we were down 4-0 and 6-3 in the second and our guys found a way to get it done."

Red Deer won eight consecutive CCAA men's volleyball national titles from 2000-07. That makes the subsequent six years a bit of a dry spell by their standards, but Schulha feels those high standards help the program.

"They walk into the gym and see those banners on a daily basis," said Schulha. "We talk about excellence all the time. We have great alumni support and to see the guys coming in with rings on their hands, it's a motivator for sure."

Red Deer knocked Briercrest out of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference playoffs. That and the passionate home crowd gave the Clippers plenty of motivation, but their hopes of springing an upset were hindered early in their 3-0 semifinal win over No. 2 Mohawk College when fourth-year middle Josh Wendel injured his hamstring.

"Last night after the first set I asked our athletic therapist and she said 'he won't be going tomorrow, so as long as he can go tonight, you better use him.' We just wanted to get into that gold medal game and give ourselves a chance," said Mullan. "We knew that was going to make a difficult task even more difficult. The guys didn't use that as an excuse."

Wendel had been healthy going into the tournament and the Clippers missed his presence at the net.

"It's unfortunate for Nigel and his guys that Josh Wendel wasn't able to play. He's a game-changer for them and a huge energy guy," said Schulha.

The Clippers tried to use four outside hitters and throw a different look at Red Deer, but they weren't able to put them under enough defensive pressure.

"We allowed one run per set which gave Red Deer that space," said Mullan. "I don't think we ever really got to them or put pressure on them unfortunately. We played catch-up most of the time. That's pretty tough to do against a team as tough as Red Deer."

As impressive as the volleyball was, the atmosphere created when the Clippers were on the floor was the talk of the tournament. The crowd's energy helped spark the sixth ranked Clippers to upset wins in the quarter-finals and the semis.

"We knew it was going to be a big crowd, but you never really know what the experience is going to be like until you get into the atmosphere," said Finnigan. "I thought I was mentally prepared, but it took me a few points to get into it. I was a little shaken up by the noise. I couldn't even hear myself think. It was a little bit of a difference, but it was awesome."

The Clippers wore special yellow jerseys in two of their games that matched the yellow t-shirts that were de rigeur for all Briercrest students — save a few who went shirtless and opted for body paint.

"On the back of the shirts it said 'united' and that's how we wanted it to feel. WIth us wearing yellow jerseys it felt like we were one team," said Mullan. "Our strength as a team isn't in our individuals, it's in our group. The atmosphere was fantastic, we couldn't have asked for anything more."

Given their numbers, the size of the support extended well beyond Briercrest volleyball fans — or even sports fans — and involved the entire community. Mullan felt that togetherness from the community would be one of the legacies of the tournament.

The Clippers are hoping to build off the success of the weekend on the court and off.

"We want to be on the national stage. It's a motivating thing," said Mullan. "Our president said we want to host again. To have that kind of support from our administrative team is really exciting. We also understand that we got this because of the success of our program. We need to keep having that success. We understand what that means as an athletic department to try to attract those players to help us compete on the national stage."

Humber College beat CBC 3-1 (25-20, 21-25, 25-17, 25-10) to claim the bronze medals.

Carter Riemer and Josh Senneker from Briercrest were named first-team tournament all-stars. Joining them were Finningan, Sam Brisbane and Chris Osborn from Red Deer and Humber's Terrel Bramwell. Red Deer's Braden O'Toole was the tournament's most valuable player. Briercrest's Jachin Karg was named a second-team all-tournament selection.

Organizations: Red Deer College, Briercrest College Clippers, CBC Mohawk College Humber College Canadian Colleges Athletic Association Kings

Geographic location: Briercrest, Red Deer, Nipissing Alberta

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