"I think we're the youngest team in the OCAA," noted Cambrian Golden Shield women's volleyball head coach Dale Beausoleil, chatting courtside Tuesday night at the New Sudbury facility.
"We are young and very inexperienced."
With more than a quarter-century at the helm of this program, Beausoleil is not prone to needless exaggeration. When he discusses the youth of his team, it's a statement of fact. And it's a fact that does not dissuade him even one iota from still setting the bar high.
"If you look at where we were this weekend, compared to where we were in September or October, the change is absolutely incredible," he added. "But we've still got a long way to go. We're able to play some sets really, really well, but we're not consistently playing a whole match yet. That's still not there."
Where Cambrian was, over the weekend, was at home, in tough, losing to the Redeemer Royals in five sets (25-20, 19-25, 23-25, 25-20, 13-15) and swept aside by the defending silver medal winners, the Niagara Knights (16-25, 24-26, 23-25).
Though the team returned four players from their 2017-18 roster, it was really only setter Isabelle Rivest and right side Emily Clark who garnered any significant minutes of playing time. And while the Shield currently sit in eighth place with a record of 2-9 and would normally face an uphill battle to earn a post-season berth, this year is an aberration.
Come the end of February, Beausoleil and company will play host to the 2019 OCAA championship. As this young team begins to jell and develop a belief in their abilities, there is not a player or coach on the roster that is interested in taking to the court in less than two months armed with the knowledge that they are anything less than competitive.
It's a process that was started in September and is now just beginning to show glimpses of the final product that Beausoleil envisions.
"If you look at where we were to where we are now, we've come a long way as a team," noted sophomore middle Teagan Langis, a graduate of the Confederation Chargers powerhouse of recent years.
"We've put in a lot of work, but there's still so much more work to go into it. The key is seeing and believing in the process, having a trust that the system is how we're going to get to where we want to go."
The work is tedious at times. There is very little that is sexy about perfecting your serve receive, your passing technique. Yet above all else, this is where everything starts.
"I feel that it's a little bit more than just repetition, because it's all about the platform, as well, recognizing what kind of serve it is, how you have to tilt it on a spin serve," said Langis.
"There's so many components that go into passing."
As can be seen by the five-set marathon versus Redeemer, volleyball is also, quite often, a game of continually changing momentum shifts.
"We tend to get momentum, then we lose it, and when we lose it, we fall short," said Langis. "If there's a bad point, it's a matter of getting over it and moving on. We do have quiet girls on our team, but they're not quiet when they hit the court. You turn into a different person."
Ensuring that the energy level remains high is a role that second year setter Isabelle Rivest accepts willingly. By virtue of both her position, on the court, and her experience, the Sturgeon Falls native must provide leadership.
"You have to step up a lot," said the second-year OCAAer, now transferred over to her first year of nursing.
"A lot of our younger players are very timid. They won't talk as much, they won't cheer as much. They look to you. But when we make a big play, you start to see the character of a lot of them. You see who they really are."
If the first half of the season was all about laying a foundation, a post-Christmas trek to Chicago, a quasi-holiday filled with tons of training and team bonding courtesy of one of the countless volleyball contacts that Beausoleil has made over the years, certainly helped bridge the gap to a second half that should be ripe with development.
"It was a whole new atmosphere over there, almost a completely different game," suggested Rivest. "We went to watch one of their teams and just seeing how they play, it was a whole other level. It was cool, just seeing how much better we still can get, how much improvement that we can have."
Dale Beausoleil does not insert teachable moments haphazardly. With 15 hours of touches on the ball, and different voices sharing the message, his team would work the critical skill set of passing south of the border.
"Obviously, there is an element of repetition – tons and tons of repetition," he said. "But it's also getting them in the game, in that situation, getting the experience."
"It seems like when we get to 23 (points), my team freezes," he added. "It's learning to get over that hump and believing that you can win. It's learning to pass and wanting the ball. It seems, right now, that a lot of them get a little scared, a little nervous. We need that mental toughness of wanting the ball. We're not there yet."
If this makes Beausoleil sound like a taskmaster, that is only partially true. The benefits of the Chicago trip were many.
"That experience opened them up like you wouldn't believe," he said. "Even tonight, they were all dancing, they're singing, they're having fun. They're coming out of their shell.
"We try and make sure that the work ethic is tough, that they are working hard, but that they understand that they need to have fun."
It's all part of the process that goes with working with a very young team.
With the addition of Confederation rookie Marissa Beeson to the fold for the second semester, the Cambrian roster now features Erica Scott-Thomas, Monica Prieto, Alexis Paquette, Jade Gauthier, Alison Labrash, Elizabeth Chisholm, Amanda Lawson, Lyric Peltier and Maggie Little, in addition to Isabelle Rivest, Emily Clark, Teagan Langis and Beeson.
The Cambrian Athletics column runs regularly during the OCAA sports season.