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Only a few months ago, the St. Thomas University men’s volleyball team didn’t exist.
Suspended for a year for violating the school’s hazing policies after the death of rookie player Andrew Bartlett at a team party, the team lost many of its players. It had to rebuild from scratch.
What emerged was a team made up almost entirely of first-year players, including four who graduated together and played volleyball together at École Sainte Anne in Fredericton last year.
They are led by Tom Coolen, former bench boss of the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds hockey team, and Francis Duguay, a 22-year-old STU student who played on the team for four years.
On Sunday, that team beat the odds and defeated top-ranked Holland College in a five-set thriller to capture the Atlantic Colleges Athletic Association title on its home court.
The team now advances to Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association nationals in Abbotsford, B.C. March 8-12
Heading into the game at Lady Beaverbrook Gym, they were ranked third, with more losses than wins.
“It tells [other teams] that you…have to take every team seriously. It doesn’t matter if you’re all first years or whatever. Anybody can win this game,” said fourth-year setter Andrew Keddy.
At 22, Keddy is the same age as his coach. He joined the team in second semester after helping at practices and is the only returning player on a young squad.
“[It] just made the biggest difference to have…a veteran voice on the team like that,” Duguay said.
The team kept it close with the Hurricanes throughout the match, with a few long rallies that had the crowd on its feet and screaming at full volume.
Players from the women’s team, who lost their championship game earlier in the day to Mount Saint Vincent University, were cheering at the front of the crowd.
The Tommies lost the first set 15-25 but, as they have all year, they proved they could make a comeback. The team won the next two sets 25-21 and 25-20.
The Hurricanes kept the game alive by winning the fourth set by a score of 25-16.
With the Tommies one point away from winning the title and Holland College only one point behind them, team captain Francis Sirois jumped up for a kill.
Duguay was expressionless, pacing at the edge of the court. The team had used all of its time-outs.
When Sirois hit the ball, all he could think about was how badly he wanted the title.
After the ball hit the floor, the gym erupted in cheers, with fans spilling onto the court to embrace the team.
After the winning point, Duguay had to fight back tears. The championship that eluded him in four years at STU was finally his.
“It means everything to me, it means everything to this school. As a player, I always wanted to win this championship and I’m just really glad I could be a part of it,” he said, wearing his championship hat with the tag still on it.
“We had nothing to lose. I said, ‘You’ve got to play every point like it’s your last volleyball point of life.’”
Before the school year began, Duguay personally recruited each player on the team, choosing 12 of 15 who tried out.
Around the same time, he met with athletics director Mike Eagles to talk about the direction of the program. Eagles knew Duguay was the right person to take over the team.
“We had a dream at the start of the year. Obviously, it was a tragic thing what happened last year, but we wanted to start fresh,” Eagles said.
“It doesn’t matter sometimes how old you are, it matters about what you have inside and what you want to do.”
Going into Sunday’s game, Keddy knew nothing could keep the team back if they played with the intensity they showed on Saturday in defeating King’s College.
“[Duguay] took us from being good players to being very good players. Not just necessarily in skill but in the mind-set.
“We’re 10 times the team we were two weeks ago. It’s unbelievable.”