The Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team lost a close semi-final match to the Western University Mustangs on Friday night, dashing their hopes of defending last year’s title in the Ontario University Athletics gold medal game. They went on to claim bronze the following day in their tilt with the Ryerson Rams, while the McMaster Marauders defeated the Mustangs 3–2 to win gold.
The semi-final heartbreaker ended Toronto’s colossal winning streak: heading into this year’s playoffs, the undefeated Blues had tallied an astonishing 45 consecutive wins over two regular seasons and a playoff campaign, and were ranked first nationally. Their last loss was on March 1, 2015, when they lost the bronze medal game of the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship to the Université de Montréal Carabins.
Friday’s semi-final match at Goldring Centre was a back-and-forth affair, going to a tiebreaker fifth set after Western won the first and third sets and Toronto countered by taking the second and fourth sets. The Blues got off to a strong start, but the Mustangs battled back with an impressive seven-point run to take the first set 25–20. The Western front line of Aja Gyimah, Candice Scott, and Kat Tsiofas set up an effective wall against a number of Toronto spikes, and the roving Gyimah performed a series of important digs and kills to limit the Blues’ counter-attack.
The momentum shifted to the home team in the second set. The offense of Blues striker Alina Dormann and excellent defensive net play from middle Anna Licht allowed Toronto to take the set 25–17, evening the total at one set apiece. The Mustangs responded in the third, storming out to an early 11–5 lead and overpowering the Blues with dominant offensive and defensive play. Towards the end of the set, Toronto pressured the Mustangs with a series of points, but the visitors took the set 25–22.
Needing to win the fourth set in order to take the game to a tie-breaker, the Blues put in a clutch performance. Their offense steadily improved throughout the match, peaking in the fourth as Dormann’s hitting percentage climbed and Anna Feore dominated on serves and play from the left side. After a number of long rallies throughout the game that frequently ended in Western’s favour, the Blues finally outlasted the Mustangs in a rally that included an incredible dig by Mustangs setter Tia Miric. Toronto took the set 25–20.
Toronto tallied an early 8–3 lead in the final tiebreaker set, as Dormann began to light it up offensively and Blues libero Asli Ersozuglu made a series of outstanding defensive plays. The Mustangs battled back after the mid-set switch to tie it 10–10 after Mustangs middle Kelsey Veltman made an excellent kill, splitting the Blues defenders. A streak of points carried the Blues to within striking distance of the game-winning fifteenth point, as they held a 14–13 lead with the Mustangs serving.
A technical violation called against the Blues tied the set 14–14, and with that the wind went out of Toronto’s sails. The Mustangs tallied with two consecutive strikes, capping a thrilling comeback with a 16–14 fifth set and a 3–2 semi-final victory.
After the Marauders swept the Rams 3–0 in the second semi-final matchup that night, the dejected Blues were set to play for bronze the following evening, March 11, against the Rams before the gold medal game. Determined to salvage their perfect season by achieving a third-place podium result, the Blues got off to a strong start in the first set. An incredible one-handed dig by Madelyn Mandryk led to the Blues’ eighth point to make it 8-4 a mere four minutes into the game. Ryerson fought back through the powerful offence of Theanna Vernon, who had a number of key kills throughout the match, but the Blues finished off the set 25–19.
The Rams countered in the second set, breaking out to an early 6–2 lead. The Blues found their stride and used a four-point streak to climb past the Rams, going up 9–7. Great defensive work from Ersozoglu allowed Toronto to keep rolling, and the Blues eventually clinched the second set by a score of 25–23. Ryerson responded with a dominant third, winning the set 25–19.
Up 2–1, the Blues were a set away from a bronze medal. They stormed out to a 13–6 lead with a dominant offense led by Dormann and Licht. The tenacious Rams would not go quietly, however, battling back to trail by one point after a four-point streak made it 20–19. The Blues saw their lead evaporate as their defense had trouble with a series of serves by Ryerson setter Kate McIlmoyle.
Key kills allowed Toronto to draw within a game point of the win, but the Rams put on the pressure and made it a 24–23 game. The Blues finally found the coup de grâce and earned the final point on a kill to win the set 25–23 and the game by the score of 3–1, capturing the bronze medal.