During the coin toss before their fifth and final set, opposing captains Aaron Hodgeson and Noah-Gabriel Rochon exchanged a smile and handshake and took a moment to admire what was happening between the Hammarskjold Vikings and the La Verendrye Viperes.
“It’s a great game, eh?” Rochon said to his Vikings counterpart.
Hodgeson would get the better of his club volleyball teammate on Thursday as the Vikings clawed back from a two-set deficit to eliminate the Viperes, 22-25, 23-25, 25-23, 29-27 and 15-6 in the Thunder Bay high school senior boys semifinals.
No. 2 seed Hammarskjold (11-2) will now face the top-ranked defending champion Westgate Tigers (13-0) in the city final on Monday.
Westgate swept the St. Ignatius Falcons, 25-12, 25-18, 25-10, at home in the other semifinal on Thursday.
“This was a lot closer than we wanted, but it was good,” Hodgeson said. “(La Verendrye) pulled it up for this game. They put up a big fight.”
The visiting Viperes took a 2-0 lead thanks to an 8-1 run midway through the second set to erase a 17-11 Hammarskjold lead. The Vikings turned the tables in the third set with a late rally.
In the fourth set, a rotational serving error caused the Vikings to lose six points, turning a 10-10 game back into a 10-4 advantage for La Verendrye. The Viperes quickly shot up to a 13-4 edge before the Vikings rallied once again, eventually drawing even at 21-21.
“It was a big serving run so we lost a lot of our points. It was really rough, to be honest,” Hodgeson said. “We were hesitating but we pulled it together. (Cameron Picard) is our best player, honestly. He served 10 in a row and pulled us back in the game.”
La Verendrye retook the lead at 24-21, but wasted three-straight match point opportunities and lost by two in extra points.
The fifth set was all Vikings. Porter Jorgenson’s ace put Hammarskjold up 4-0. Kohl Johnson delivered a kill and Johnson and Picard teamed up for a net block as the Vikings pushed the lead to 8-3 and the team never looked back.
“All year we’ve been preaching being mentally strong and defensively sound,” Hammarskjold coach James Jensen said. “Those two things are what helped us crawl back into the game, chipping away with a few points here and a few points there.
“It’s a really great experience for these guys,” he added. “Being put into pressure situations just before the finals is going to help them deal with their nerves.”
La Verendrye coach Veronique Morin said watching her team lose leads in the third and fourth sets was a tough experience. The first-year coach of this program took comfort in the fact they finished 8-5 in league play overall — its only losses were at the hands of Westgate and Hammarskjold.
“It’s hard to see them. They were so hyped. They won two sets,” Morin said of her players. “They worked so hard. All though the season. Honestly, we did have a good season. I’m not sad about how they played tonight. This was actually our best game of the whole season.”
Monday’s gold medal match will be held at C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse on the Lakehead University campus. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
Another test on a bigger stage awaits, said Jensen.
“Full game, start to finish,” Jensen said. “Having a strong start is going to help us. Like (Thursday) we had a very slow start. Our passing was off and you saw the nerves happen. But when these guys are on and they come out here with confidence, that’s going to be the real difference maker.”
Hodgeson, whose team was defeated twice by the Tigers in the regular season, is grateful for another crack at the champs.
“It’s a big challenge for us. We haven’t been able to beat them yet this season inside tournaments, outside tournaments,” said Hodgeson, one of five club players on the Vikings. “We’ve taken sets off them but only third sets. Really, it’s what we’ve been working for this whole season.”
The Thunder Bay champion will host the winner of the Northwest league (Fort Frances, Dryden or Kenora) in the regional championship. The victor will then advance to OFSAA, Nov. 21-23 in Stratford, Ont.
In the Thunder Bay high school senior girls basketball semifinals on Thursday, the reigning champion Hammarskjold Vikings dumped the St. Ignatius Falcons 70-47 and the St. Patrick Saints clipped the Westgate Tigers 62-59. Hammarskjold and St. Patrick will meet in the final at the Fieldhouse on Monday.