The Hamilton Spectator

Women’s sports get boost from nationals

- SCOTT RADLEY

The perfect scenario for local volleyball would’ve seen the women’s team from McMaster walk off their home court Sunday with national gold medals around their necks. That didn’t happen.

But if you were looking for a terrific sales pitch for the sport around here — another in a series of them over the past number of years — this was it.

Do you agree, head coach Nate Janzen?

“I don’t know if I like the term ‘sales pitch,’ ” he says.

OK, what works better? “We’re trying to elevate women’s sports in our community,” he says. “I think it’s really important that women’s sport becomes as big as it could be.”

Fair enough. Because it did that, too.

Over the past seven years, folks around here — both the diehards and the uninitiate­d — have had three chances to see the bump-setand-spike nationals contested at Mac. This repeated spotlight has certainly given the sport a tremendous jolt. Hamilton has become a youth volleyball hotbed.

But lately it’s always been the guys. The women haven’t hosted this event since 2012. On the weekend, they got their turn on the big stage.

Of course, it wasn’t ideal that the hosts drew the team that went on to win the whole thing — the University of British Columbia was also the defending champion and No. 1 in the country for most of the year — as its quarterfin­al opponent.

Even so, after a slow start, the Marauders grabbed the momentum and looked for a while like they would pull off the incredible upset. As this was happening, the atmosphere in Burridge Gym was fantastic. The place was wall-to-wall sign-waving, horn-blowing, noisemaker-banging fans, many who probably needed a lozenge after it was over from all the screaming they’d done.

“Cheering ‘Go Mac, go’ the whole time whether we were up or down and just having their support and feeling that love,” says outside hitter Sullie Sundara. “That was just really cool.”

Alas, the shocker didn’t materializ­e.

Amid the moist eyes in the wake of that four-set loss, Janzen pointed out that Mac’s best finish at nationals was sixth. Wins in Saturday’s and Sunday’s consolatio­n round would give them fifth and a slice of history.

So on Saturday — amid no less of a din — they beat the Ontario champions from Brock in straight sets. Then, on Sunday, they knocked off Saint Mary’s in four. Recalibrat­ed mission accomplish­ed.

This kind of result is obviously good for the program. Do well on the big stage and many of those girls playing on club teams in the area (a.k.a.: Mac’s potential farm system) will take notice.

“There’s a whole bunch of amazing girls volleyball being played,” Janzen says.

“And they’re starting to dream bigger about how, maybe, one day, they could play for us.”

But it’s not just about future players. It’s about seizing an opportunit­y to grow the audience. Which is something we’re seeing a lot of these days.

Women’s sports are in the midst of a unique moment right now. The Profession­al Women’s Hockey League is filling arenas, a Canadian women’s pro soccer league is gearing up to kick off next year and there are rumours of a WNBA team landing in Toronto. There are other signs of things being on an upward trajectory, too.

University sports aren’t profession­al but, with people appearing more eager than ever to support female athletes and the games they play, it’s a perfect time for any program in any sport to inject itself into that surge.

It wasn’t just Mac doing its part. The five-set quarterfin­al between Brock and Acadia was sensationa­l. And the 21⁄2-hour semifinal between Alberta and Manitoba — that went to extra points in the fifth set — was simply outstandin­g theatre.

Yeah, gold for the home side would’ve been a lovely storybook ending.

Eventually it’ll happen for either the women or the men (who also lost in the national quarterfin­als. Also to UBC and also 3-1).

They’ve been in this tournament and close enough at times that the breakthrou­gh is inevitable, some day.

But this weekend did its part to do exactly what Janzen said he wanted it to do. There will surely be people who came to watch a match for the first time over the past few days who will come to watch another after seeing this.

“The fan base is bigger than it’s ever been,” he says.

That’s a victory.

 ?? CATHIE COWARD THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO ?? McMaster’s Olivia Julien has her spike blocked by UBC’s Claire Cossarini, left, and Issy Robertshaw during the U Sports women’s volleyball championsh­ip on Friday.
CATHIE COWARD THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR FILE PHOTO McMaster’s Olivia Julien has her spike blocked by UBC’s Claire Cossarini, left, and Issy Robertshaw during the U Sports women’s volleyball championsh­ip on Friday.
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