Submitted by Brian Bell
An exceptional eight-match winning streak culminated in a national championship for the East Kootenay Avalanche under-15 boys’ volleyball team.
Playing May 17-19 at the University of Calgary, the Creston-based squad lost its opening match two sets to one and then never looked back, winning 16 of its final 18 sets – including 11 in a row during one extraordinary stretch – to run the table in Division 2 at the Volleyball Canada nationals.
The gold medal victory capped an outstanding season for the team, coached by Mike Nelson of Creston and featuring Fernie players Ben Gilmet and Andrew Craig. Competing almost exclusively against big city competition, the Avalanche proved their worth in bringing home the first national crown in Nelson’s lengthy and illustrious coaching career.
“I’m so proud of the whole team,” said Creston team manager Carrie Armstrong. “They worked hard all year and overcame adversity many times, especially during games at the nationals.”
The championship match – a 28-26, 24-26, 15-7 triumph over 204 Cardinal of Winnipeg – was just one case in point.
A seesaw first set saw East Kootenay (E.K.) fall behind 5-2 before a 9-2 run of its own put the Avalanche in front 11-7. After trailing 15-12 and 21-19, the Avalanche battled their Manitoba foes evenly down the stretch as the score was tied 21-21 and at every point thereafter until the locals pushed through with two consecutive points at 26-all to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three match.
When E.K. jumped out to 9-3 and 14-7 advantages in the second set and it appeared victory was imminent but Cardinal would not quit, closing to within 20-15. Still, clinging to a 23-21 edge, the Avalanche were just two points away from the title before dropping the set 26-24.
With momentum swinging the other way and demoralization a distinct possibility, not to mention fatigue (having played three tense matches per day for three days), the Avalanche found the resolve not only to prevail in the decisive set but to do so convincingly. They took leads of 8-1 and 10-2 enroute to a third-set victory that put them on the podium for a medal ceremony inside the massive Olympic Oval, site of speed skating events during the 1988 Olympic Winter Games but home to 20 volleyball courts during the six-day nationals.
That match almost seemed tame in comparison to the drama which unfolded in the semifinals against the WinMan club, also of Winnipeg. E.K. trailed by as many as 11 in the first set and faced a 24-16 deficit when the Avalanche stared down eight straight set points without blinking and rattled off an unthinkable 10 consecutive points behind the serving of Gilmet on their way to a 26-24, 25-15 victory that sent them into the gold-medal match.
The day began with the first of three sudden-death playoffs in a seven-hour span, a three-setter over the St. Albert Sturgeons from suburban Edmonton, 25-20, 20-25, 15-5.
Ironically, the Avalanche’s final opponent was also its first as 204 Cardinal posted a three-set victory in the opening round-robin match for both teams on day one, 29-27, 23-25, 15-7. E.K. held leads of 21-19 and 22-18 in the first and second sets, respectively, before settling for a split, then trailed from the outset in the tiebreaker.
In addition to the Fernie pair of Gilmet and Craig, the 2015 Avalanche roster was rounded out by three players from Creston and three from Cranbrook.
Assistant coach Niall Cobbe of Creston was also unable to make it to Calgary.
The 2015 nationals marked the first time Volleyball Canada staged boys and girls championships in all age groups in the same place at the same time, setting up the largest festival of volleyball in Canadian history and possibly the country’s biggest single-sport event ever.
A total of 787 teams from coast to coast competed in two separate intakes from May 14-19, with more than 10,000 athletes, 300 referees and 15,000 spectators in attendance.