Underdog Gaels put the right ingredients together

Members of the senior boys’ volleyball team at Cathedral High School are excelling in chemistry.

Despite the fact that there are 13 new players on the squad this season, the defending champion Cathedral Gaels have discovered the formula for success.

Cathedral advanced to the 2013 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic Athletic Association finals with a 3-1 semi-final victory over the Braves at the St. Jean de Brebeuf gym on Wednesday (Nov. 6). After dropping the first set, 23-25, the Gaels stormed back to win 25-14, 25-22, 25-23. The other semi-final, at Cardinal Newman, saw the second-place Cardinals top the third-place Bishop Ryan Celtics, 3-0 (25-19, 25-17, 25-19).

The championship game will be played Friday (Nov. 8) at Newman.

Matthew Passalent (3) hammered down the points for the Cathedral Gaels. (Photo: Gerry Graham)

Grade 11 student Matthew Passalent (3) hammered down the points for the Cathedral Gaels. (Photo: Gerry Graham)

The Gaels, who finished the regular schedule in fifth place with a 7-7 record, swept the fourth-place ACMT Jaguars, 3-0, in a quarter-final playoff before upsetting the Braves (12-2). It should be noted, however, that Cathedral also blanked the visiting Braves, 3-0, during their last meeting on Oct. 22.

“We’ve improved by leaps and bounds from where we were to where we are now,” said Cathedral coach Andrea McCabe. “We have 13 new players, including two starters on the court who had never played high school volleyball before and a transfer from Sir John A. Macdonald. They all work well as a team. And they really care about each other. These boys are so much fun to coach. Every kid on the bench was completely engaged for every single point.”

The main ingredient in the mixture for Cathedral, however, is the 1-2 punch of setter Michael Felinczak and left side Matthew Passalent. Passalent, a lanky Grade 11 student and member of the Mountain Athletic Club 17U squad, was the top point-getter for the Gaels. He also hammered down the final point to end the match.

“Our team played phenomenal,” Passalent said. “We came in as the underdogs. It shows how much we’ve improved from the start of the season. When we first played them in this gym, we lost 1-3. It’s a good feeling to come back and beat them in the semi-finals.”

Felinczak, team captain who also plays for the Mountain Athletic Club 18U team, said the turning point in the match came in the third set when Cathedral rallied from an 18-11 deficit.

“This was an outstanding win,” Felinczak said. “We had to give it completely our all. Brebeuf is a fantastic team … No. 1 in the league. It took a lot of resilience. We served well and we passed well. And we always finish well.”

Felinczak and Passalent are the only returnees from the Gaels of 2012 who, according to McCabe, “missed a provincial medal by one point.” The Gaels were up 14-13 in the fifth set against the No. 2 seed at the Ontario high school tournament last year before losing the quarter-final.

Said Felinczak: “We lost almost our whole team. We just have a bunch of athletic guys who came out and we did something with that. We made a team.”

According to McCabe, the majority of the Gaels are inexperienced but they do the simple things very well.

Brebeuf coach Inez Debellis said it was a hard-fought match that could have gone either way.

“Offensively, we were a little weak today,” Debellis said. “Our defence was really up. Each player gave it their all. We gave them a fight. That’s all I can ask for as a coach.”

The Braves coach said the loss of one of the team’s best players due to a leg injury last month – Matthew Stanichak – was a tough blow down the stretch for Brebeuf.

The Braves lost to Cathedral in last year’s city Catholic final.

At Newman, the Cardinals breezed past the Celtics in comparison to the last time those teams met. On that occasion, Newman needed five sets and it was 15-13 in the deciding set.

“Tonight,” said Newman coach Mike Fuchs, “our serving was much better and we communicated better. Each set was close, but we pulled away at the end.”

Bishop Ryan, incidentally, has been playing without its regular head coach, Joe Lackovic, in recent weeks. He has been absent due to a back injury. The Celtics will still challenge for the Golden Horseshoe Athletic Conference Triple A championship next week against a Halton representative. The game, TBA, will be played in Hamilton.