'Birds headed to national bronze medal match-up after defeat to Alberta Pandas

The UBC women’s volleyball team faced a familiar foe in the U Sports championship semifinal on Saturday afternoon. In an all-Canada West match-up, the ’Birds faced the Alberta Pandas for a spot in Sunday’s championship game.

The ’Birds would ultimately drop three of four, as the Pandas cruised by them for their second straight championship game berth with a 3-1 win.

Though these two teams split the season series when they last met in November — and both played in the Canada West playoffs this season — they had yet to meet up in post-season action this year. The last time these two teams met in a playoff game, the Thunderbirds downed the Pandas in the 2017 U Sports championship game to capture last year’s national title.

Following their second-place finish last season, Alberta was clearly out for revenge. They entered Saturday’s match-up well prepared and with an answer for everything UBC threw at them all afternoon.

To no one’s surprise, UBC superstar and U Sports rookie of the year Kiera Van Ryk opened the first set in dominant fashion. After a powerful kill and a couple of service aces, she helped her team open the match with an early lead. Some errors on the part of UBC, however, helped the Pandas claw their way back into control.

Through the early stages of the set, Alberta began to gather momentum, as their blockers began to find success shutting down the attack of Van Ryk and theT-Birds. It was clear that the Panda’s blocking line, featuring middle blocker Shauntelle Hogg, knew exactly what to expect from UBC's attack and knew exactly how to stop it.

Kiera Van Ryk sends the ball past Alberta.
Kiera Van Ryk sends the ball past Alberta. Courtesy Mathieu Belanger/ Laval Rouge et Or

UBC’s blocking line struggled early as the Pandas’s outside attack started to find holes. Kills that weren’t driven through the hands of UBC’s blocking line were tipped over the blockers into the pot, just out of reach of the back line. Alberta would continue to exploit the gaps in the centre of UBC’s defense — a go-to play throughout the match.

Though the Thunderbirds continued their powerful attack with some success, the Panda’s line was overpowering and drove them to a comfortable first set victory, 25-19.

Into the second set, the ’Birds continued to chase the Pandas. They found themselves down by a pair of points for much of the frame. Though UBC was able to pick up a handful of points on Alberta's service errors in the second set, their own service game fared no better. Through the match, UBC had 15 unforced service errors, managing net negative points on their service game despite scoring 12 aces.

Though UBC was outplayed for much of the second set, an exceptional solo effort by Van Ryk held them in the game. Facing an Alberta double set point, Van Ryk scored back-to-back kills to tie the game at 24. The T-Birds would score again for a set point of their own, only to lose it on a service error by veteran setter Alessandra Gentile. Hogg would score back-to-back kills for the Pandas to close out the second set 27-25 – leaving the ’Birds on the ropes.

UBC opened the third set with a newfound set of urgency with their championships hopes fading as just one set stood between them and elimination. They continued to trade points with the Pandas through the early stages but started to gain momentum as the set wore on. The ’Birds were able to build a five-point lead as Van Ryk, Gentile and middle Danae Shephard were finally able to find a way past the stringent defence of Alberta. The Pandas, however, seemed determined to finish the game in just three sets, scored six unanswered points to recapture the lead at 16-15.

Sam Patko and Anna Price scramble on the same play.
Sam Patko and Anna Price scramble on the same play. Courtesy Mathieu Belanger/ Laval Rouge et Or

Thanks to service aces and excellent blocking, the ’Birds would respond – outscoring Alberta 10-3 down the stretch to close out their first set win of the match at 25-19.

With the ’Birds seeming to control the final stages of the third set, the Pandas answered with a strong start to the fourth frame. The momentum shifted quickly, as Alberta continued their strong defensive stand and attacked UBC’s back line.

Halfway through the set, with the score close at 9-7, Alberta seemed to find their groove and started to pull away. The holes that were open in the third set in the Panda’s defence and blocking were slammed shut, as they continued to answer any attack the ’Birds posed.

Alberta would close out the game by their largest margin of the match, as UBC would drop the final set 25-15.

Though it wasn't the result UBC had hoped for, they have to make a quick turnaround as they get set to play again tomorrow morning at 11 am in the bronze medal match-up. Though they have fallen just short of a shot at repeating their national championship title, they will play for a chance to pick up their second medal in as many years.

The bronze medal may have even more weight behind it, as UBC is set to face the University of Calgary Dinos who faced a loss to Ryerson in the other semifinal of Saturday night. Just last weekend, the Dinos defeated the Thunderbirds to claim the Canada West title. Now, the two heavyweights will have to battle it out for any kind of U Sports hardware.

Game time is set for 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 18, at Laval University.