After three of years looking for a School Sports Newfoundland and Labrador provincial 3A banner, the Pearson Academy Astros senior high boys’ volleyball team finally found what it was looking for.
On Saturday evening, in front of roughly 200 tightly-packed fans at the Pearson Academy gym in New-Wes-Valley, the Astros edged a very game Jens Haven Memorial Huskies team from Nain 25-16, 25-22 to capture that illusive provincial banner.
It was an emotional scene in the gym after Jordan Knee put away a David Brown set to solidify the win. Fans rushed the court to celebrate with the team, while parents openly wept on the sidelines.
It was a moment head coach Craig Loder has been waiting 15 years to experience.
"It's been a long time coming," said Loder following a team picture on the school's steps. "Six years as a player, nine years as a coach, it feels good to finally get one under my belt."
Since the opening serve of the season, Loder has preached the importance of team play to this year's crop of Astros' players. Nothing changed during the provincial tournament, as Loder wasn't scared to use his bench, including junior-aged players Kris Winter, Grade 7, and Riley Gill, Grade 8.
However, during the semifinal game against the New World Island Academy Prowlers, and again in the final against the Huskies, Loder turned his top line loose, and they came through for their coach.
Time and time again, the sets went to Grade 12 standout David Brown in the playoffs, and he consistently put points up on the board.
Strong team play helped bring the Astros to the playoffs, but when push came to shove, the veterans brought the team over the hump.
"It's what Level 3 students are supposed to do," said Loder of Brown's offence. "They're supposed to step up in key situations and it was nice to see. Plus, he promised me he would deliver."
When Brown wasn't getting the sets, Grade 11 player Marcus Howell and Grade 10 player Knee put their share of balls away, and on the defensive side of the game, Grade 12 middle player Chris Humphries was a blocking machine.
For Brown, who competed in his last school-based provincial volleyball tournament on Saturday, it was a moment he'll never forget.
"It's pretty crazy. It's just...I'm speechless," said an overwhelmed Brown. "I don't know how to describe the feeling."
Only Brown can compare the feeling he felt after the final point went up on the scoreboard to the feeling that went through him during the championship point. With the score 24-22 for the Astros in the second set, fans lined the sidelines with their cameras pointed at the Astros side of the court. Meanwhile, the sound of 200-plus screaming fans echoed the hallways of Pearson Academy - a sound that was so loud not even the players could hear the referee's whistle.
"At that point everyone was fired up, but we had to try to stay focused," said Brown. "You couldn't get caught up in the moment."
With tension mounting, a free ball came over the net. Brown admitted he wanted to be the one who put the game away, but when the pass came to him, he never hesitated setting Knee, who didn't pass on the opportunity to put up the championship-winning point.
"Being my last year, I wanted to put that point away. It's my last chance, so I wanted to be the one who put it away," said Brown. "The pass came up, and I saw Knee, and I know he was striving for it as much as I was. I glanced at him, put the set to him, and I knew he was going to put it away as soon as I set the ball. I just set it and walked away."
Although the Astros deserve the headlines after winning provincial gold, the Huskies caught everyone's attention with its strong defensive play. The Nain-based team had only one player taller than six feet, and the team surprised everyone with an undefeated round-robin record.
If anybody knows what it's like to be the unknown team at a tournament, it's the Astros, and Brown was highly appreciative of what the Huskies were able to accomplish.
"It's pretty phenomenal. They don't get to play a lot of tournaments in Newfoundland because of the travel costs," said Brown. "I have a couple of friends from Jens Haven that I played provincial volleyball with over the summer, Patrick Webb and Nick Okkatsale, and it was good to see them here. They played well, put up a strong fight, and I'm glad the trip wasn't a waste of time for them. They're gone home with the sportsmanship banner and the silver medal, and I'm really happy for them."