St. Francis Xavier Tigers poised for another ROPSSAA title

By DAVID WINER

Unless you’re packing snowshoes or skis, a drive up Hwy. 400 to Barrie in early March isn’t the most favorable of destinations.

Unless, that is, the trip is for business.

And a handful of volleyball teams in ROPSSAA (Region of Peel Secondary School Athletic Association) hope they have the skill sets required in their résumés to earn the coveted trip to Barrie’s Innisdale Secondary School March 6-8 for the Girls ‘AAA’ OFSAA (Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations) championships.

Should the defending champion St. Francis Xavier Tigers earn the trip, Barrie might sound balmy compared to last year’s foray into North Bay where they reached the quarter-finals before being eliminated by Oakville’s T.A. Blakelock.

But before the Tigers can book their hotel reservations, there are a few teams providing hurdles, with last year’s finalists, the Mayfield Mavericks at the front of the line. The Mavericks, like the Tigers, swept their competition during the regular season and playoffs before getting blanked 3-0 (25-21, 25-15, 27-25) in last year’s final.

The Mavericks are accustomed to standing atop the podium having won eight of the past 12 championships.

There’s also some new faces looking to put the race for league supremacy into a tizzy, including last year’s Junior champions, St. Joan of Arc Angels. They will be joined by the likes of the Humberview Huskies, St. Joseph Jaguars, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Bulldogs, Philip Pocock Pirates, Lorne Park Spartans, Streetsville Tigers, St. Thomas Aquinas Cardinals, Meadowvale Falcons and others comprising the five-division, 30-team league that began play on December 5.

However, there’s little doubt the Tigers and Mavericks are the cream of the crop with a majority of their starters returning for another whack at the title.

Mavericks’ head coach Cheryl Leenders has all but two of her left sides and a libero returning from last year’s silver medal lineup, giving her seven veterans to lean on.

“We also have six strong Juniors moving up (from last year’s Junior finalists) giving us some extra height at the net, and filling in the positions we needed to fill,” said Leenders. “We have more height this year than we have had in many years in all positions in the front court. Additionally we are a strong passing team with two strong setters (with) a third if necessary.”

Leenders, who heads up the team along with Rich Besworth, adds there is great cohesion and camaraderie.

“The girls all get along and are committed to the team.

“We have lots of team leaders, mainly our returning Seniors, but the Juniors from last year have found their voices and are not intimidated by the older girls. Some are more vocal than others, but some are also quiet leaders who lead by example.”

Leenders expects the championship final will likely include the Tigers.

“St. Francis Xavier is our competition again this year,” Leenders says matter of factly. “They played strong last year, and unfortunately, (we) did not play our best in that final. But we are definitely stronger this year as a team and the girls are out for redemption and are hungry for the win.

“We are very excited this season and are just starting on our journey that we hope ends at OFSAA.”

Tigers ready to earn their stripes once again

Speaking of the Tigers, they have four of their six starters returning, including Pakmen and co-captains Caitlin Le and Julia Wiercigroch, who were teammates of the Mavericks’ Tristan Peterson and Danielle Grabowski on last year’s Pakmen 17U squad.

Le, an outside hitter, and Wiercigroch, a middle and outside hitter, are joined on this year’s Tigers’ squad by returnees Julia Sek (middle) and Julie Ngo (setter). Meanwhile, top Junior graduates Ella Pawlowski (middle), Grace Kuang (setter) and starting twins Nicole (outside hitter) and Sophia Milanetti (outside hitter, middle) will be counted on to fill the vacancies.

Outside hitters Thea Milanetti, Stephanie Nguyen and Isis Konofal, as well as middles Meghann Fahey, Kate Ferrin and setter, outside hitter Jessica Nguyen comprise the remainder of the team.

“Last year was the first time in Xavier history that any volleyball team from our school qualified for OFSAA,” Le proudly pointed out. “(And) I strongly believe our team is better than ever, as many of our returning players have worked hard during the off-season to improve all aspects of their game.”

“We have a dedicated group of girls who have a passion to improve in the sport they love to play,” agrees fellow Tiger, Wiercigroch. “Almost everyone on the team plays volleyball outside of high school whether that is through rep teams or development programs and leagues.

“This year’s team loves to compete and play their best every time they step onto the court,” continued Wiercigroch. “We are constantly motivated. Even when things don’t go according to plan, we are able to support each other and work towards a solution. And, our team is able to make quick adjustments to our opponents during matches. I think our attitude on defense is a lot stronger than in our previous years. Every girl who is on the court has an ambition to keep the ball from touching the ground.”

Both Le and Wiercigroch concur all those attributes will be needed to stave off contenders.

“As defending champions, I believe every team will give us their best game to try and beat us,” said Wiercigroch, adding “we will have a challenge with Mayfield. For the past three years, they have placed top four in the ROPSSAA championships.They have a very good team chemistry with a variety of strong players in different positions.

“Having won ROPSSAA three years in a row (twice as Juniors), there is definitely some pressure on our shoulders to win another title,” adds Le. “However, we have been working very well as a team and have yet to lose a game over the past four seasons!”

Should the Tigers manage to fight their way out of Peel, Le looks forward to the opportunity to represent this region at the Provincials once again.

“Throughout the (OFSAA) tournament, we played many teams that were evenly matched with us,” recalled Le. “The games were all so very close!

“At OFSAA, I think that the competition is much harder, but I have confidence that our team will surely pull a couple upsets if we were to compete.”

Until such time, Le says she and her teammates must concentrate on the task at hand.

“I think our region is still very competitive and anyone is in contention for the ROPSSAA title. Some schools that may give us trouble this year (other than Mayfield) include St. Joseph, Joan of Arc and Meadowvale.”

Angels hoping to soar above the competition

Should either the Tigers or Mavericks falter, the Angels from St. Joan of Arc are certainly capable of swooping in. The core of last year’s playoff squad returns and they will receive an injection of young blood from last year’s Junior champions.

Head coach Josée Bergeron is a big fan of Junior coach Dave Primier and how he guided the school’s younger Angels to a ROPSSAA title.

“Dave has done a great job of not only coaching the girls, but teaching them what to do and how to improve every day to be successful,” said Bergeron. “The girls come into the Senior level already knowing so much about the skills and tactics of the game, that it makes it much easier for the Senior coaches to build on that knowledge. Add to that a good group of athletes, and success follows.”

That aforementioned group of five Junior graduates include Kaitlyn Bryan, Skylar Forrest, Melissa Jose, Dorcas Onwudiwe and Jenna Rozal. They will continue to mature under the guidance of some impressive Seniors headed up by Megan Vernon, who has accepted a volleyball scholarship to Kansas State. Meanwhile, Jade Rozal returns as a fourth-year starting setter. She will be joined by Tami Oluwaseyi on the right side, Jaden Castell in the middle and Ariane Compton on the left side.

More good news is, “Marissa Zucchetto returns after a year off playing high level soccer and we are glad to have her back,” said Bergeron. “These girls had success at the Junior level two years ago by making it to the ROPSSAA finals and want very much to return to the final as Seniors.”

Bergeron hopes the infusion of youth will help offset the loss of graduating Seniors Marissa Coasley and Taijah Kelly.

“Both had also played club volleyball and brought with them that dedication to the game, which also helped to elevate the level of play of their teammates.

“Our group of Grade 12 players are dedicated and focused on achieving a high level of play. They set the example of how to approach drills in practice and play during games for the Grade 11 players. We also have four players who play or have played club volleyball and bring that knowledge and experience to the school team.”

Like the Mavericks, Bergeron says her team’s strength is at the net.

“One of our strengths is our blocking. We have some height, which makes it much easier to block and sets the tone for our defense. The girls move well on the court and have the ability to make adjustments throughout the game. This group can also hit very well.”

But, Bergeron does admit her team is far from perfect.

The players need to try and improve every day in practice to be successful in their season,” she insisted. “Serve reception (will be) key for our team. I believe that if the serve reception is solid, then we will be a difficult team to play against.”

But even Bergeron is realistic in conceding the top two seeds are the Tigers and Mavericks.

“St. Francis Xavier won the Junior title two years ago, so I would expect them to be the team to beat this year,” she said. “Mayfield always seems to have good Senior teams as well.”

Bulldogs live up to their name with determination

Both the Senior and Junior Gonzaga Bulldogs reached the ROPSSAA semi-finals last season under the helm of head coach Carley Simpson.

Considering both teams forced third set tiebreakers and the Juniors went undefeated during the regular season and the Seniors were first in their division, it stands to reason the Bulldogs have what it takes to contend.

The Bulldogs will have to recover from a number of key losses in their Senior ranks.

“Last year’s team had some exceptional players that will be greatly missed, such as team captain and amazing power player Megan Meechem and middle player Gabby Cruz,” said Simpson. “(We) also said goodbye to our only true left side and left-handed player Mimi Cepic. Our libero, Grace Yu, was exceptional, and unfortunately (early) in the semi-finals fully dislocated her shoulder on a dive, which did shake the team for the remainder of the match.”

However, the cupboards aren’t completely bare as evidenced by both teams’ runs.

“This season is promising for both teams,” says Simpson. “The Senior team, under the leadership of a talented middle player Viktoria Krajevic and quite possibly the best setter in all of Peel for the last four years, Vanessa DiCecca, represent the core of a strong starting line up.”

Simpson is also very optimistic about the future.

“This season the Junior team looks to be phenomenal.

They have incredible depth and experience. Players to look out for would be Nicole Wernham, Hannah Chown and Abby Schamber. Returning players Samantha Povilaitis and Alliyah Woolcock will most likely dominate the front row and help guide the new players in what hopes to be an eventful season.”

St. Joseph Jaguars will be on the prowl

The St. Joseph Jaguars should be competitive after the Junior team reached the semi-finals last year.

“Our strongest players are in Grade 11 this year, so we’ll see how they do against some older players in Grade 12,” said coach Gerald Hunt. “Maddie Cholette is a very strong setter, server and leader; Brianna Gullace is an excellent hitter, server and passer; and Emily Power and Ala Rusczcuk are excellent passers.”

Hunt figures his Jaguars will have their hands full with the likes of the Xavier Tigers, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Joan of Arc Angels, Pocock Pirates, Mayfield Mavericks and Humberview Huskies.

Humberview Huskies jumping into the fire

After going undefeated in Tier II action in regular season play, Kent Campbell’s Humberview Huskies are making the jump to Tier I.

His players will be fortified by graduating Juniors, who helped the Huskies go undefeated in the North before losing in the playoffs.

Although the losses of setter Rachel Kernohan, right side Laura Berton and middle Shonnah Stephen, “definitely will be missed,” there are four returning Seniors Campbell is excited about.

“I’m looking forward to a great season of competition,” said Campbell, adding, “the team is very scrappy and rarely do they give up on a play.”

Returning to provide veteran leadership are setter Danielle Jones, middle Voula Migkos, left side MacKenzie Mathieson and middle Elizabeth Haarman. They will be joined by seven graduating Juniors.

The Huskies had a first-hand look at some of their competition when they hosted the Humberview Spikedown Tournament on Dec. 1 in which Humberview defeated St. Joseph Jaguars 2-0 in the final, after the Huskies edged Sudbury’s Confederation 2-1 in one semi-final, while the Jags defeated Notre Dame 2-1 in the other.

Based on the tournament’s results, Campbell pointed to the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, Lorne Park, Streetsville and St. Joseph as teams capable of giving Mayfield and St. Francis Xavier a tussle.

Young St. Marcellinus team will compete on ‘Spirit’

“Our team is really young,” admits St. Marcellinus coach George Kalaouzis. “We have two Grade 9 starters, a Grade 10 and three Grade 11s. Because of our youth we are a little bit erratic and too inconsistent for my liking.”

To help alleviate their shortcomings on experience, Kalaouzis is entering his charges in a number of tournaments, “so I hope our team can round into form by the time the playoffs roll around.”

Just this past weekend (Dec. 10-11) the Spirit traveled west to Chatham Kent and won gold by defeating Eden of St. Catharines, last year’s OFSAA ‘AA’ bronze medalists, in the final.

“My key girls are Alexandra Depina (power), Victoria Thomas (setter) and Julia Capone (power),” added Kalaouzis. “Alex is in Grade 11, Victoria in 10 and Julia in 9. They play for (Mississauga) Pakmen 17, 16 and 15U respectively.”

While Thomas and Depina return for another Senior year, Capone enters her first year. They join other important returnees in Sanjog and Sukham Brar (right side, power) and Harita Sehra (libero).

“Our team mentality is predicated on defense first,” said Kalaouzis. “We are not the biggest team, so we need to be scrappy and keep the point alive. Our strengths are that we are a tough serving team with an intelligent setter and multiple options out of left/right side.

“As the season develops I’m going to work hard to bring our middles (big, but young) along so we can be a more complete team.”

Along with Xavier and Mayfield, Kalaouzis, “also likes the makeup of Streetsville’s team. They have a lot of talent and will do some damage if teams take them lightly.”

Pirates hope to steal away the title

Pirates coach Adriana Finelli probably wishes the season ended this week.

A perfect 3-0 record out of the gates, while winning the Mississauga tournament has brought a smile to Finelli’s face.

“Let’s hope we can keep it up!” says Finelli, who is excited by the play of a number of her players, including Grade 11 middle Teodora Vukovic, Grade 11 power hitter Nicole Amandy and Grade 12 captain Jade Shum.

Vukovic is “a strong middle”, Amandy “is excellent at defense” and Shum is “consistent and smart.

“I’m also happy to have Korina Black move up to Senior. She is our starting Grade 10 middle who will only get better playing at this level. She won OFSAA gold in Grade 9 as a high jumper.

“We will have a strong offensive team this year,” continued Finelli. “Teodora is excellent at adjusting to any set that is given to her. Nicole and Jade offer great options on the left side. Magda Pacyniak has been setting these girls for the last three years, and we are really seeing some nice volleyball being played. Korina has really come around with the timing of her blocks, which has helped with our defensive game. I will give it to them, they will not let that ball hit the ground without a good battle.

“I hope our girls end the season as well as they start the season,” said Finelli. “It is hard with winter sports because of all the breaks. They really hurt the flow of the season.

“We started off strong last year (as well) winning the St. Joe’s tournament…but too many dropped sets cost us a playoff spot.”