Vernon Panthers senior girls volleyball coach Keith Becker (left) begins a drill as the team continues to prepare to host the B.C. AAA championships starting Thursday at the Panther Pit.

Vernon Panthers senior girls volleyball coach Keith Becker (left) begins a drill as the team continues to prepare to host the B.C. AAA championships starting Thursday at the Panther Pit.

VSS senior girls set for provincials

The Vernon Panthers are stoked about hosting the B.C. AAA High School Senior Girls Volleyball Championships.

Kristy Fugel and Ashley Condie can see it happening.

It being the Vernon Panthers senior girls volleyball teammates facing an unknown opponent in Saturday’s B.C. AAA high school girls volleyball final at the Panther Pit in front of a capacity crowd, one point away from the provincial title.

Condie, the setter and co-captain, floats a ball majestically high in the air to power hitter Fugel, the captain, who blows the ball past a double block, giving the Panthers the gold medal while hysteria breaks out around them.

Of course, there are 15 other teams who share the girls’ vision and are making their way to Vernon for the provincial AAA championships which begin Thursday. Games will be played at VSS, Kal and Fulton schools.

“After we get the point, I can see the team coming in and being so excited,” said Condie, a Grade 12 student, of what would be a dream ending to her high school career. “We’re giving each other hugs, maybe shedding some tears.”

Added Fugel, also in Grade 12: “It’s just going to be an awesome experience to play in front of family and friends. Everyone can come and watch. I’ve been thinking about it all the time, thinking of winning and celebrating, finishing it with a kill and everyone running onto the court. That would be the best thing ever.”

Keith Becker’s Panthers are one of three Okanagan teams in the 16-team field. The Cats hosted the Valley championships a week ago, finishing second to the Sa-Hali Sabres of Kamloops – a team the Panthers beat in the preliminary round. Kelowna’s Okanagan Mission Huskies finished third.

The Panthers are seeded second in their four-team pool behind the Hugh McRoberts Strikers of Richmond, and ahead of No. 3 Caledonia Kermodes of Terrace and the LV Rogers Bombers of Nelson.

VSS takes on Caledonia at 10:15 Thursday, the Bombers at 12:55 and finish the opening pool day against McRoberts at 4:55, all games at the Panther Pit. All 16 teams advance to the playoff round starting Friday.

Two Prince George schools – Duchess Park Condors and College Heights Cougars – are ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the province. The Panthers, who finished seventh last year, are seeded sixth.

“The calibre of ball is pretty equal across the board in AAA,” said Becker, who started as an assistant coach with the Panthers in 2009 and took over as head coach the next season.

“We’ve had a strong team all year but it’s been an up and down season. At the end of the day, we have the talent and skill level to win a provincial title.”

Mental toughness, said Becker, will be a key.

“When these girls put it together and play well, they make it look effortless,” he said. “But when they get into a mental slump, all of a sudden they’re fighting back rather than holding a lead.”

Said Condie: “We definitely need to be more confident. We know we can win and we have to think that and not underestimate ourselves, and, at the same time, not underestimate our opponents.”

The Panthers have participated in a handful of tournaments this season, winning the Princess Margaret Mustangs Invitational in Penticton.

“Getting off to a good start will be everything,” said Fugel. “We tend to set our tone on how we’re doing in pool play. If we do well, we usually finish well.”

Joining Fugel and Condie on the Panthers are Kendra Cooper, Kate Healy, Taryn Kreeft, Saige Woodliffe, Anna Rice, Katie MacGillivray, Nevada Krog, Jessica Melvin, Courtney Becker, Ayme Lynch and Rhiannon Lutzke.

Becker is assisted by Erin Phillip, who played college ball at Simon Fraser University, and who won a provincial title the last time the event was in Vernon in 2005 as captain of Parksville’s Ballenas Whalers.

Becker also picks the brain of legendary Vernon girls volleyball coach Dennis Murdoch.

“He’s the one who inspired me to continue to coach volleyball through his passion, dedication and desire to teach good volleyball skills and his love of the sport,” said Becker.

The provincial final is slated for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, centre court, at VSS.

Murdoch will serve as a special assistant coach for the UBC Okanagan Heat, who will take on the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack in a university women’s exhibition match Wednesday at 7 p.m. at VSS to kick off the provincials.

Admission is free but fans are asked to bring a non-perishable food item for the Vernon Food Bank.

Vernon singer/songwriter Andrew Allen has allowed the event to use his song, Your Time To Shine, as the tournament theme.

The logo for the event was created by VSS art teacher Liz Allardice.

Other teams in the provincial championships include the Brooks Thunderbirds (Powell River), Clayton Heights Night Riders and Fraser Heights Firehawks (Surrey), Timberline Wolves (Campbell River) and Windsor Dukes (North Vancouver), who, along with Duchess Park, College Heights and Okanagan Mission, will play Thursday at Kal and Fulton.

The Mark Isfeld Ice (Courtenay), Little Flower Academy Angels (Vancouver) and RE Mountain Eagles (Langley) join the Panthers, Sabres, McRoberts, Caledonia and LV Rogers at VSS.