The Phoenix Academy Raiders saved its best for last at Friday's 10th annual PJ Sports Junior High Boys Volleyball Invitational Tournament in Gander.
Competing in the Tier 1 Division, the Raiders of Carmanville competed against the St. Paul's Intermediate Varsity Cardinals of Gander, Gill Memorial Vikings of Musgrave Harbour, and the Exploits Valley Intermediate 9s of Grand Falls-Windsor.
The Raiders stumbled a little out of the proverbial starting block, splitting its opening match against the Cardinals, and splitting its third match against the Vikings.
However, when the round robin ended and playoffs began, the Raiders were able to turn things around to take down the Cardinals in the semifinal 14-25, 25-13, 15-12, and the EVI 9s in the final 25-18, 25-16.
Head coach Ryan Saunders admitted the team started a little slow, but added his boys picked it up when they had to.
"We have a lot of new players that just started playing this year, and in fact, probably half of our team is brand new to volleyball. There were a lot of growing pains," said Saunders. "We started the tournament a little slow, but we came on strong in the second-half of the tournament."
"It's just a wicked feeling," said Kyle Coles. "It's the second time this year we won gold, and I want to keep this going."
After winning the opening set of the gold-medal match, the Raiders saw a more determined Eagles team open the second set. With each team swapping points, Saunders called a few early timeouts.
When asked what his message was during those two breaks, Saunders said he wanted to re-enforce a few messages, while pulling an old ice-the-kicker football trick in the process.
"First of all, I wanted to make their server go back and think about what he had to do," said Saunders. "I just wanted to remind the boys that they had to start deep in their court, and then move in. I told them, it didn't matter if the serve was hard or soft, the technique of passing the ball was still the same. We try to focus on relaxing, because sometimes the boys can get a bit tense, so I told them to start passing the ball just like they do at practice."
The Raiders have a few rookie volleyball players on the junior team, but many of them play with the school's senior team.
Having that rookie enthusiasm mixed with veteran leadership makes the squad very dynamic, and Saunders said the more the juniors train, practice and play with the senior team, the better they'll get.
Also, when those juniors leave the senior team to play with the junior squad, they bring what they learned with them.
"It feels good," said Dustin Gillingham, a Grade 8 player for the Raiders. "I'm learning a lot from playing with the older guys on this team. They're teaching me all about hitting and digging, and showing me everything I need to know about volleyball."
Moving forward, Saunders said the team will bank on its experience leading up to provincials, which begin next month.
However, the team still has a number of rookie players, and the players who compete with the senior team are still only in junior high.
Saunders said the plan is to work on communication leading up to provincials, and he wants to see which players bring the I-want-the-ball mentality.
"Team work, and the fact that some of the boys have been training with the senior team all year," said Saunders, when asked about the team's strengths. "They have a ton of experience, and most of the boys even play on our senior team. They're getting a lot of touches, and that experience helps a lot.
"We're definitely going to be working on our communication, calling the ball, and really having the desire to make big plays," he added.
Besides experience, and what Saunders hope will be a better communicating team, the Raiders will count on strong fan support when provincials roll round.
Despite snowy conditions on Friday, which resulted in a few teams withdrawing from the tournament, many of the Raiders fans drove to Gander to cheer on the team.
Saunders said each of his 10 players appreciated the efforts of their fans.
"It was great to see, especially since the weather was so bad," said Saunders. "It's an hour's drive - an hour-and-a-half in bad weather - but they still came out support us. Whenever the boys had a big hit, a nice dig, or a huge serve, the place went up, and that was huge for our team."
Junior Boys Tier 1 PJ Sports Results
St. Paul's Intermediate 20, 25 Phoenix Academy 25, 22
St. Paul's Intermediate 15, 21 Gill Memorial 25, 25
Phoenix Academy 25, 25 EVI 22, 17
Gill Memorial 25, 25 EVI 19, 19
Phoenix Academy 19, 25 Gill Memorial 25, 21
St. Paul's Intermediate 25, 25 EVI 17, 18
Semifinal 1 Gill Memorial 25, 21, 9 EVI 23, 25, 15
Semifinal 2 Phoenix Academy 14, 25, 15 St. Paul's Intermediate 25, 13, 12
Final Phoenix Academy 25, 25 EVI 18, 16