North West River team overcomes adversity to qualify for NL Winter Games
© Brad Keats
The girls’ volleyball team from Lake Melville School in Northwest River will be representing Labrador at the NL Winter Games. They include: Front (l-r) — Faith Butt, Kelly Butt, McKenzie Hutchings and Danielle Cole; back — Dasi Obed, Willa Neilsen, and Alice Michelin.
At the beginning of the school year, six out of the seven players had never played on an organized volleyball team. Now, McKenzie Hutchings, Danielle Cole, Faith Butt, Willa Neilsen, Dasi Obed, Kelly Butt, and Alice Michelin of Lake Melville School in North West River, will be representing Labrador at the NL Winter Games.
“They’ve been practicing with me and on their own for quite a bit of time,” said coach Desmond Montague. “The results weren’t really there in the fall of the year when they played some tournaments, but they kept getting better and better…”
“They handled the pressure really well, they performed up to their capabilities…”
The girls’ road to the Winter Games certainly wasn’t a smooth one. During the original qualifying tournament, held in Goose Bay in January, where they played against teams from Menihek High School (Labrador City) and Mealy Mountain Collegiate (Happy Valley-Goose Bay), Lake Melville School was disqualified for lack of players.
Montague was told, after his team had won the first two games, that each team needed at least nine players.
After the disqualification, Montague talked to officials at the Newfoundland and Labrador Volleyball Association, and expressed some concern about the rule.
“I just talked to some people at the provincial sports level…I just wanted to express some concerns, in terms of how it impacted small schools,” said Montague.
“We were disqualified based on (having) below the minimum number of players…if that was the rule, it can negatively impact small communities, who can’t put a full team together.”
Because of age restrictions for volleyball at the NL Winter Games, Montague could not take any girl 16 or older. The seven girls on his team range from ages 12 to 15, an age range that doesn’t have a large pool of athletes at the small school.
“The seven that I had would literally be 50 per cent of our grade 7 to 10 girl population,” said Montague.
To the delight of Montague and the entire Lake Melville School team, the disqualification was over overturned on appeal, and a rematch was set for Feb. 8 in Churchill Falls.
“The people at the NLVA and Sport Newfoundland and Labrador, they were really supportive about it…” Montague said.
“I told them, whatever the results of the appeal was, I was just glad they looked into it…”
For the young ladies on the team, news of second chance greatly lifted their spirits.
“Mr. Montague called me in the morning before I left to go to dance, and he told us we had a rematch but we didn’t know what it was…” recalled McKenzie Hutchings.
“We were beyond excited that we got the second chance.”
“We all just had to like call each other and figure it out off of facebook and stuff,” added Kelly Butt. “I was like crying, I was shocked that we actually got a second chance, because we are a small school…it’s a great chance…to go to the Newfoundland and Labrador Winter Games”
The girls form North West River continued their success in Churchill Falls, winning both of their round robin games against Labrador City and Happy-Valley-Goose Bay. But the girls gave a lot of credit to their opponents, who kept the scores achingly close.
“It was closer (than the previous tournament). The teams got a lot better,” said Hutchings.
In the finals, North West River was pitted against Labrador City. It was going to be an exciting, tense, match. But North West River received an extra boost from a group of friends. Rather than hit the highway right away, the team from Happy Valley-Goose Bay stayed to cheer on North West River.
“We owe a lot of our support to Mealy Mountain…” said Butt.
“Mealy Mountain was really supportive of us, even though they didn’t get to go (to the finals)…they all cheered us on.”
Also in the crowd, were many parents and supporters from Northwest River. The friendly atmosphere made the girls feel right at home in Churchill Falls.
“We had a good crowd. We had so many parents and supporters. It was almost as if we were playing a tournament here in Northwest River,” the coach noted.
North West River won their first set of the finals 25-14, but the talented and determined group from Labrador City came on strong in the second set.
With the score tied, North West River was two points away from a trip to the Winter Games.
Willa Neilsen served the ball over the net. Labrador City could not return the serve and, just like that, North West River pulled off an unlikely victory.
“When we won, we all kind of stopped for a minute and looked at each other because…it took us a couple of seconds to realize what we’ve done,” said Hutchings
“It seems like something that would never happen, but it did. So, I’m pretty excited.”
Now that the qualifications are all over, North West River is preparing to represent all of Labrador. This is something few would have banked on back in September.
But, despite being a small group, they were determined. They carried with them a team-oriented mindset, whether it was on or off the court.
“A lot of practices after school, and we used to go down to my house in the evenings and watch movies,” said Hutchings, who was named team Labrador captain after the victory in Churchill Falls.
“(We) give each other support…laugh with each other, have some fun with each other before the big game…” added Butt.
Montague also noted that, besides the girls’ hard work ethic and closeness to each other, his team also carried a sportsmanlike attitude. They also made sure to have a lot of fun on the court.
“They played with a lot of smiles on their faces, so they enjoyed themselves the whole time as well,” Montague explained.
For their part, the girls give a lot of credit to their coach for bringing the team together and organizing all the practices.
“Mr. Montague, without him we wouldn’t have done it,” said Hutchings.