VIU women win gold!

The Vancouver Island University Mariners achieved all their goals and won gold.

VIU’s women’s volleyball team won the national championship on Saturday night in their home gym, defeating the Mount Royal Cougars 23-25, 25-18, 25-19, 26-24.

“Unbelievable,” said Tamara Rosenlund, veteran libero. “I couldn’t ask for anything better than this, ever.”

The gold-medal match was played in front of a packed gymnasium that was deafeningly enthusiastic, with members of the VIU Nation sporting blue body paint and sounding vuvezelas.

Those fans were treated to the finest volleyball the Canadian Colleges’ Athletic Association has to offer, as the country’s top-seeded teams faced each other in the national final for a second straight year. The Cougars were the team that ended up with gold last March in New Brunswick when the Mariners had a championship point overturned. This year, things played out differently.

After the Mariners leaped to a solid lead to start Saturday’s final, they gave it all back to the Cougars and dropped the first set. The M’s players were undaunted, they said, but coach Shane Hyde was a bit worried.

“I just figured that we kind of lost an opportunity,” he said. “We gave them momentum and that’s what I was worried about.”

The VIU ladies got that momentum back. Strong serving helped them win the next two sets.

“We knew if we stuck with it and just kept plugging away, that there would be cracks and cracks opened up by the end,” said Dani Smith, veteran setter.

Up two games to one, VIU found itself in the same position as a year earlier, with a chance to win the fourth set and capture the championship. The intensity in the gymnasium reached new heights as the fourth set was knotted 24-24.

“Those last points, people were getting balls that maybe we wouldn’t have gotten earlier on in the game,” Rosenlund said.

Jacqueline Doleman, veteran middle, said her team was “in the zone” at that point.

“All our focus was on the court,” she said. “Nothing else really existed. It was kind of surreal.”

Hyde called a couple of timeouts to settle things down.

“I was, for sure, shaking, and I’m sure everybody was,” said Leanna Gildersleeve, power hitter. “A couple deep breaths usually help. And just focusing on every point and not looking ahead to the next play. Just focusing on that ball, that block, that serve, that hit, that set. You’ve just got to stay in the moment.”

She made the serve on match point and teammate Marlie Temple made the block that won it for VIU.

And then?

“Euphoria. Ecstasy,” said Doleman. “There’s no words that can explain it, really. I can’t believe it happened… Well, I can believe it happened. We earned it.”

Smith said the feeling probably won’t sink in for a while.

“It’s just the most amazing thing and at that very moment, it was just surreal,” she said. “It’s something that I’m going to hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life.”

And they do get to keep it for the rest of their lives, since this time there was no overturned call to wrench the championship from their arms.

“We felt this last year and then it was taken away. I really felt bad for the girls,” said Hyde. “Now it’s ours, and no one can take it away… It’s such an amazing time. We commit so much time and effort away from our families and friends and sacrifice so much, and to celebrate it as a group, this group is just an amazing group of girls and I’m so pleased and so proud of them.”

Mariners are crowd-pleasers

Winning on home court meant the M’s really got the chance to share their championship.

Rosenlund said the fans made a “10-fold” difference on Saturday night.

“They helped so much and I would have hated to be the other team there,” she said. “I couldn’t see it going any other way with [the crowd] on our side.”

Gildersleeve said what was happening in the stands had an impact right on the court.

“You just jump that much higher and you just want it that much more,” she said. “For them, too.”

Doleman said she doesn’t expect to ever again experience the kind of atmosphere she got to play in during the gold-medal match.

“I’ll always remember this,” she said. “It was insane. If I was another team I would have been terrified to play in here.”

Hyde told the players to soak it all in.

“The environment, that atmosphere, you’ll never play in it,” he said. “That is one of the most spectacular moments that they’ll ever remember.”

COURT SHORTS … Gildersleeve had 23 kills and 13 digs in the final, Shenise Power had seven aces, Doleman had eight kills and Rosenlund made 14 digs. Gildersleeve was chosen player of the match and also tournament MVP. Power and Smith were named first-team all-stars and Rosenlund was a second-team all-star … To view a slideshow of photos from Saturday’s gold-medal match, please click here.