The Royal reign in North Shore premier league volleyball finally ended last season when the Argyle Pipers became the first team to beat the Handsworth Royals in the championship final since 2006.
As the 2013 season enters its home stretch there's a new contender lining up to take their best shot at winning the crown. The West Vancouver Highlanders haven't won the North Shore title in a long while - "I think this is my 12th year (at West Van) and, at least in my time here, we haven't won North Shores," said head coach Mike MacNeil - but this year is looking promising for a team that is full of veteran players.
With five starters back from last year's squad, the Highlanders have already beaten both Argyle and Handsworth to move to the top of the standings. West Van's 3-0 win over Argyle was tempered a bit by the fact the Pipers were missing star provincial team player Kendra Finch, but the Highlanders received top marks from their coach for their come-from-behind win over Handsworth at West Van earlier this month.
The Highlanders dropped the first two sets but, gaining energy from a boisterous home crowd, came back to win the final three to take the match. MacNeil said it was one of the biggest wins in his tenure as head coach, adding that the team overcame the deficit despite playing without one of their key starters.
"I was trying to piece together a lineup that I thought would work and we switched it up in the third set and took over," he said. "We had a great showing in the stands - we're not used to having lots of spectators for our later games but it was a good contingent of Highlander fans. We used that energy to overcome the two sets down and came back and won in five. It was a really satisfying win."
The Highlanders were dropped down a peg, however, this Thursday when they traveled to the Sunshine Coast to take on Elphinstone and lost a tough five-setter. The crowd came into play again, said MacNeil, as the Gibsons school was fired up for the only home game they get to play this year in the North Shore league.
"I don't know if hostile is the right word, but they were excited to have (a home game)," he said with a laugh. "The gym was full. . . . Elphinstone is a strong team."
The Highlanders, however, remain in first place with a 3-1 record, matching the marks of both Handsworth and St. Thomas Aquinas. They'll have a chance to take control of the standings this Tuesday when they play STA in the opening game of a doubleheader starting at 6 p.m. at Argyle.
Wherever the team ends up in the standings, MacNeil is confident that the Highlanders have the experience and toughness to make long runs in the North Shore playoffs and at the provincial championships.
"I've been really proud of the girls for their resiliency and being able to stay in matches and fight back when it kind of looks like we're feeling down and things are rough for us," he said. "The girls have really been able to dig deep and come back and fight hard in games that maybe a younger team might find difficult to come back in.. .. I'm also really proud of the leadership that I'm getting from my returning players. We've got a strong contingent of Grade 12s - they're girls I've coached for four years now so I'm leaning on them to be real leaders this season."
The Highlanders finished fourth on the North Shore last season and then failed to advance out of the Lower Mainland championships into provincials. With most of the players back this year, those losses are still fresh in mind.
"With that experience of going through last year's league and the Lower Mainlands and just really missing going to provincials, it is a motivating factor for the girls and wanting to really prove that they're contenders," said MacNeil.
Right now West Van, Argyle and Handsworth are all ranked in the top-10 in B.C. for AAAA schools and MacNeil is hoping that translates into a large number of provincial berths for the Lower Mainland zone.
"It would be great to see the three of us this year at provincials in Penticton," he said. First, however, the North Shore needs to be settled. The semifinals and finals, location TBD, will be played Nov. 4 and 6. Will the Royals regain their throne? Will the Pipers score a repeat? Or will a different team swoop in and start a new streak.
"I'd love to see that," said MacNeil.
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