Kings of Canada: Thunderbirds win nationals for first time in 35 years

UBC men’s volleyball are U Sports champions.

Over a hard-fought three days of games, the Thunderbirds claimed their first gold medal in thirty-five years at the U Sports national championships at McMaster University on Sunday afternoon.

After upsetting the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the semifinal on Saturday, the Thunderbirds put on another great show against their Lower Mainland rival, first-ranked Trinity Western University Spartans — taking down the volleyball giants in straight sets.

The T-Birds ended a two-year title streak for the Spartans.

What’s more, the result was in stark contrast to how UBC fared last year at the same tournament, when they were ousted by the Brandon Bobcats in the semifinals — they ended up in fourth place. In less than a year, the Thunderbirds have moved from a top-four caliber team to the team to beat.

The two teams showed utterly different playing styles in the game on Sunday afternoon. While the Spartans were keen on their systematic gameplay, the T-Birds generated a creative and diverse strategy, alongside some destructive plays from the service line. It was a test of strength throughout, in which UBC came out on top.

The T-Birds were firing on all cylinders as they opened the match with a 5-3 lead. UBC veteran setter Byron Keturakis spread out the attack from the front line and suppressed the opponent’s hitting percentage to 32 per cent — their lowest percentage the weekend. Collaboratively, the T-Birds contributed eighteen kills in the first set and took the frame 25-22.

Bryon Keturakis winds up for a serve.
Bryon Keturakis winds up for a serve. Grant Holt/The Silhouette

The second frame continued in the T-Birds’ favour, with a well-organized blocking system playing a large role in their success. The Thunderbirds gained control of the court at the beginning of the set with four hard blocks, taking them to a 7-5 lead. Although the Spartans used up their two timeouts early in the set, they still failed to break the high defensive wall of the ’Birds which included the likes of Keith West, Jordan Deshane and Fynn McCarthy. Later on, McCarthy’s one-on-one blocking became an unstoppable force on the court and widened up UBC’s lead to 23-16. Finally, the Thunderbirds ended the set at 25-18.

Entered into the third frame, the Spartans felt the must-win pressure on the court and bounced back hard out of the gate. With increased offence from Eric Leoppky and Jackson Howe, the Spartans were able to take a 14-10 lead midway of the game. However, the Thunderbirds quickly caught back up with kills from Deshane and service aces from team captain Irvan Brar and West respectively, getting them within a point at 20-19 for the Spartans.

Though an attack error and service error from Brar and Keturakis would put Trinity into the home stretch, again UBC would take the lead at 24-23 with Deshane on the service line. Under intense pressure with the game on the line, the Spartans fought hard in the dying points of the set. They would even get the chance to end it all ahead 25-24, but a kill from UBC’s West would be the iceberg to Trinity’s Titanic. A service ace from Fynn McCarthy set the ’Birds up to take the win, and a not-to-be-missed kill from Keith West put the final nail in the coffin for the Spartans.

With a 27-25 set win, UBC would take the national championship title with a 3-0 win over the Spartans.

Captain Irvan Brar and rookie Fynn McCarthy celebrate their national title.
Captain Irvan Brar and rookie Fynn McCarthy celebrate their national title. Grant Holt/The Silhouette

Post-game, multiple Thunderbirds were recognized for their excellent performances both on the night and throughout the tournament: McCarthy was awarded player of the game, setter Keturakis was named the most valuable player in the U Sports championship and Brar was given the fair play award.

The win puts an end to a memorable season for the T-Birds, who came into the national tournament as the third seed in the nation behind fellow Canada West teams the Spartans and the Golden Bears. Throughout the season, they had a 20-4 conference record, putting them in second position as the regular season closed out in Canada West. They had 12 straight-set wins overall — including three in the post-season. Brar, libero Tyson Smith, McCarthy, Keturakis and West all featured on the Canada West top-ten lists for various statistics.

UBC was all smiles — and rightly so — post-game.
UBC was all smiles — and rightly so — post-game. Grant Holt/The Silhouette

Most importantly, their year was one that saw the team solidify their lineup into a force to be reckoned with. Veterans like Brar, Keturakis, West, Regehr, Ben Chow and Mat Guidi — who was sidelined due to an injury earlier in the season, but was a steady presence coming off the bench for the ’Birds in the closing stages of the regular season and throughout playoffs — complimented the likes of younger blood like McCarthy, Deshane and Coltyn Liu. Danny Aspenlieder provided solid service coverage when called into play for the T-Birds. Smith held steady as the team’s go-to libero.

Everything worked as it needed to this year for the men’s volleyball team — and their result showed it.

Head coach Kerry MacDonald, who only started with the team last season, has made them into the best team in the country.

Now we will all have to wait to see what the next chapter will be for their team.