Element Panthers finish fourth after busy weekend

Matthew Gourlie
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The Moose Jaw Element Panthers tried to divide and conquer this weekend.

Leah Hundeby from the Moose Jaw Element Panthers, right, tries to hit through the block attempt of Darcy Francis from the Fox Valley South Quest Raiders.

The local 18-and-under girls volleyball team became two teams at their tournament after one of the 10 teams pulled out at the last minute.

No matter. The Element's 12 players formed two competitive teams that finished 3-1 and 2-2 in their respective pools before they played the playoffs as one team once again.

"We had a team drop out (Friday) afternoon, so I ended up splitting our girls into two teams. We decided to do it that way so all the teams had the same number of games," said Element Panthers coach Lewie Bell. "Both teams played really well in the round robin.

"It was good for our girls. They got a lot of playing time."

In the medal round, the Element Panthers lost 25-13, 19-25, 20-18 to Prince Albert Toppers En Fuego in the semifinal and lost the bronze medal game 25-11, 25-20 to the Fox Valley South Quest Raiders.

Toppers En Fuego beat the Wala Xtreme, a 17-and-under team from Watrous and Lanigan, 2-1 (16-25, 25-22, 20-18) in the final.

"They beat us pretty good in the first game, but we came back," said Bell, of the semifinal loss. The Panthers led the third set 14-11, but couldn't get the final point before Prince Albert rallied to win.

In pool play, the Panthers Blue were 3-1 and took Wala to three sets. The Panthers Black were 2-2 and lost in three sets to Prince Albert and South Quest.

"We have 12 girls who are pretty equal in ability, so it's tough to decide who you want to put on the court at any given time. We don't have a starting six per se," said Bell.

That depth will hopefully hold them in good stead this coming weekend when they take part the Sask. Volleyball Association 18-and-under provincials.

The Panthers are ranked eighth heading into the tournament. Prince Albert and South Quest are both ranked ahead of them.

The top four teams in the province — two from Regina and two from Saskatoon — will be in one top pool and the other 25 teams will all be battling to join them in the top two tiers of competition.

"They're fairly strong teams. They have all of the provincial team players. So it's hard to get into the top-four," said Bell who feels that those teams are beatable, despite being loaded with high-end talent. "An upset wouldn't be out of the question, which would get us into the top-four, but finishing fifth would be awesome for us. We have to peak at the right time."

The Panthers are unusual at this level of volleyball because of their depth. They use all 12 of their players and their strongest starting rotation can change match to match depending on the form of  individual players.

"When we go to a tournament we try to use our first few games to feel out who's playing well for us this weekend and who's not," said Bell who use the same setter and libero in the third-place game Sunday, but otherwise played five players in one set and five other players in the other.

"Our 12 girls are all really strong. These top teams have one or two girls who are super strong and who are provincial team players, but we're just as strong as the rest of their team. I don't think anybody has a full 12 like us. No one uses their full bench like we do. Player-for-player we've got a really strong team."

The Panthers will likely only have 10 players at provincials. Middle blocker Leah Hundeby will miss provincials because she is taking a mission trip to Mexico and Paige Newans will likely also miss the whole weekend as she has a tryout with the Medicine Hat College basketball team.

"Paige will miss at least Saturday, so we'll be missing two middles," said Bell.

The Panthers and Moose Jaw Falcons are both in a preliminary pool that will see the top two teams advance to the Tier I and II playoffs. They will play a crossover game to earn a spot in the quarter-finals.

The teams that don't advance from that preliminary pool will drop down to play in a lower tier.

Bell is hoping they can win their pool — which also features the Martensville OuterLimits, Outlook LCBI Volleyball Club and the Prince Albert VC Fusion.

The Falcons are in a group with the fifth-ranked Wolseley Slashers, plus Yorkton McSweeney's Selects, Regina QCVC Thunder and the Nipawin NEVC Edge.

"Depending on how well we do at provincials, that will determine where we're ranked at nationals," said Bell whose team is going to nationals in Edmonton in May. "The higher we're ranked, the better our draw will be at nationals."

Organizations: Element Panthers, Medicine Hat College, Prince Albert Fox Valley South Quest Raiders.Toppers En Fuego Outlook LCBI Volleyball Club

Geographic location: Prince Albert Toppers En Fuego, Watrous, Sask. Saskatoon Mexico Edmonton

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