Junior Mustangs girls’ volleyball team clinches North Shore championships on home court

The junior girls are all smiles following their North Shore Secondary Schools Association win last week. photos by Rachael Orford

BILLINGS – The Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) Mustangs junior girls’ volleyball team has just concluded an undefeated season with a victory over Espanola to take the North Shore Secondary Schools Association (NSSSA) title at a showdown held at MSS last Wednesday, February 12, earning the girls a spot at the upcoming Northern Ontario Secondary School Athletics (NOSSA) championships in North Bay.

“This is a talented bunch of athletes who really impressed the other coaches, parents and referees around the league. They’re true ambassadors for the sport and for MSS,” said coach Neil Debassige. “They are what the Mustangs sports program aspires to be in every regard.”

By all accounts, it’s been an incredible season for the junior girl Mustangs that was built on solid work, not horseshoes. After countless matches against a myriad of opponents, the girls consistently said nay-nay to each challenger and finished the regular season without losing so much as a set.

Finishing first in the regular season earned them the honour of hosting the NSSSA playoffs with home court advantage. Their first challenge was fourth-ranked Elliot Lake. In the best-of-five-sets showdown, the Mustangs held onto their undefeated title for the first two sets but fell in the third. It was no deterrent, as the girls rallied back to a resounding victory in the following fourth set.

It was then onto the finals against their neighbours in Espanola where the Mustangs took three straight sets to stable their challengers and win the title.

“It’s not only the raw level of talent on the Island in all sports and volleyball especially, but it’s really the support that these teams get from people who jump in and help out,” said Mr. Debassige.

He cited his brother, Derek, as well as MSS volleyball alumnus and current teacher Andrew Argall as being instrumental in building the girls’ technical skills during their practices. He also gave a special mention to last year’s coach Sherry Thirkill who, despite not being at the school any longer, laid a solid foundation upon which to build.

The junior and senior teams also share some practice time and enjoy playing games against each other. The older players have served as strong role models for the next generation. 

The girls went undefeated, only losing one set in the final.

Mr. Debassige is newly returned to the world of school athletics. The former educator coached a variety of sports during his tenure and took a stint coaching the Manitoulin Wild junior hockey club. Following the hockey experience he decided to take a break from the bench until the former junior girls’ Mustangs coach moved schools. 

He and staff representative Steve Doane helm the squad now, although according to Mr. Debassige, their jobs are made easy with this group of players.

“These girls can coach themselves. They’re just a fantastic group of not only athletes but people,” said Mr. Debassige. 

On several occasions, he said, referees, opposing coaches and parents have approached the team to commend them on their demeanor both on and off the court.

“It’s a good reflection on parenting and on the Island to have people say that,” he said.

The team’s keys to success, he said, have been the girls’ positive attitude and commitment to practice. 

“They want to have that extra gym time and they’ll find rides when there’s no late bus. They go out of their way to put in the time to improve their individual skills and also bring up the team skills as a result of that,” said Mr. Debassige.

The stable drive to improve is key to volleyball, which is a game of momentum that can change quickly, according to Mr. Debassige. 

Last year, the junior girls Mustangs volleyball squad also won NSSSA and the chance to compete at NOSSA. Although Mr. Debassige was unable to attend, he said the girls fared in the middle of the pack. They are looking to improve their standing for this year and working on defence will be key to their success.

“We’re going to be playing teams from schools that draw 1,000 kids or more, so their pool of player selection is much greater,” he said. “We’re a major offensive threat to the NSSSA league, but for NOSSA we have to up our game in terms of defence.”

The team has its sights firmly set on a NOSSA victory at the upcoming event, which will propel the girls to the next great challenge as they enter their senior school years.

“For the next few years, especially with the addition of Mr. Argall to the team and school, we’ve got our sights set on OFSAA at the senior level,” Mr. Debassige said.

The NOSSA playdowns are presently set for Friday, February 21, but this date will have to change due to the province-wide one-day job action by all four teachers’ unions. It’s expected that the event will be changed to the following Monday and Tuesday, February 24 and 25.