By Cole Parkinson
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
It was a special finish for the U14 WHAM volleyball team this past weekend as they competed in their third premier tournament of the season. After good showings at their first two tournaments, players and coach were eager to reach that final rung.
“This was our third AVA premier this season, and the players have become more comfortable as the season has progressed. At our first premier, they were quite nervous, but they played well and proved to themselves that they could compete with the teams in our division. At our second premier, the team worked hard to win the bronze medal, and that gave them a lot of confidence going into this third premier,” explained coach Jill Pickerell. “This was our first time seeing the teams from Northern Alberta, but they didn’t let that phase them — they trusted themselves and each other and worked as a team to come out first in their pool.”
After a great round-robin, the intensity kicked up a notch as the team headed into playdowns. Despite the uptick in stress that comes with higher-leverage games, the players reacted well to all that comes with playoffs.
“The girls do a great job of staying humble and grounded. Between games we would watch other matches to ‘scope out the competition’, but the girls would always cheer on and be supportive of other teams. Their positive approach to competition helps them stay grounded because they don’t put the focus on beating other teams or losing to other teams, but rather on what they themselves can control and how they can be better athletes,” continued Pickerell.
After beating the Rocky Wildcards, SAS Bulldogs, and LVC Red, WHAM found themselves in the final taking on Dome Def. Navy.
“I don’t think that any of us (parents, players, or myself) really knew what to expect. We just took it point by point. We have some really strong servers that allowed us to snag an early lead and I think the whole team went, ‘Hey, we might be able to pull this off!’ We went back and forth for most of the first set, but were ultimately able to win it. I could tell the girls were exhausted in the second set, but I knew that we were now just one set away from gold,” continued Pickerell. “Volleyball is such a mental game, and I think that the team’s ability to lift each other up, stay optimistic, and persevere (whether we were leading or not) allowed them to stay in the game.”
Coming down to the end of the second set, the teams were neck and neck, but with WHAM already up by a set, the team was pushing hard to pick up the win.
“At the end of the second set, we were tied 23-23, and I don’t think anyone on or around the court was breathing. The next point, our back row passed up a tricky serve and was quick to react when the other team made an out-of-bounds attack. At a score of 24-23, we were one serve away from gold. And with the smack of the ball and a shank from the other team, we were number one in our division,” added Pickerell.
The tournament win was thanks to the hard work of all the players on the roster. The coach was incredibly happy with how hard the team worked and how that worker mentality led to great results.
“We have worked a lot on mindset this season, and players blew me away with their resiliency and perseverance this weekend. They are a very skilled team as well, our setters are super fast and versatile and are able to react quickly to what our team and hitters need. Our middles are dominant and aggressive, they made some impressive blocks and hits this weekend. And our outside hitters are persistent and powerful, they will do just about anything to get their team a kill. But all these skills aside, it was their mental strength that stood out to me,” stated Pickerell. “They never gave up, they never took their foot off the gas, and they never let their success distract them from being kind and gracious to all of the other players and officials at the premier. I really cannot pick any one player that contributed to the team’s success this weekend because they truly work as a team to help each other improve and achieve and I think that is their secret to success.”
Looking back at this huge feat for Taber WHAM, Pickerell gave her perspective on how the team was able to overcome the odds against some of the bigger volleyball clubs in the area.
“At these premiers, a lot of people underestimate us — rightfully so. We are a small club and a small team of 10 girls from Taber and Bow Island. Most of the teams we are up against come from large clubs in bigger city centres with teams where girls are hand-picked from hundreds that show up for tryouts. I think it goes to show that volleyball, and sport in general, is alive and well in our smaller communities – especially because of the awesome networks of support we have and need to thank,” explained Pickerell.
The coach also wanted to make sure the parents, families, and communities were recognized for all the support they give as well.
“Our parents and families are so supportive of these players and give up so much to be at each of our premiers and get these players to practices and games. Our players come from amazing school athletics programs, including D.A. Ferguson, St. Mary’s, and Senator Gershaw School, that have taught the players a strong work ethic and incredible sportsmanship. I would not be able to be here with these girls if not for my amazing high school coaches. We also have a scholarship player sponsored by the Taber Titans and have received support from several local businesses and groups. When we show up to these premiers, it’s nice to think that we are representing Taber and area sports and recreation, and I can’t think of a better team to do it.”