A post-Christmas trip to Cuba could well be considered the cure for what ails many a local resident.
The Cambrian Golden Shield women's volleyball team certainly hope that's the case.
After compiling a record of 2-7 through the opening half of the 2019-2020 OCAA schedule, the local collegiate crew mixed in a trek to the islands, one which involved daily competition against elite Cuban talent, just prior to returning home to take part in the Adidas Cup at Durham College in early January.
A silver medal performance at said tournament, a showing that included key victories against the likes of the Trent Excalibur, Sheridan Bruins and les Rouges de St-Boniface would lend credence to the belief that the mid-season sojourn was extremely beneficial.
"The whole idea of the training (in Cuba) was for the girls to touch the ball, because we haven't touched the ball regularly since December 2nd," said Cambrian head coach Dale Beausoleil. "With all of that time off, we needed ball touches, ball touches, ball touches, getting themselves back in the game, getting themselves ready for this big weekend with Mohawk and Redeemer."
The sessions, however, carried with them even more of a takeaway than anticipated, vaulting the Shield to a level that easily surpassed their standard of play, prior to the exam break and the holidays.
"It was amazing," confessed Barrie native and Cambrian freshman Jordan Phillips. "The intensity of how much they play and how much they practice - it's pretty much part of their school system, growing up, that volleyball is included."
More importantly, it provided Phillips and her teammates with an even greater appreciation for the scale of venues that might sometimes be taken for granted back home. "Their floors are actual wood, with holes in it and everything, but they actually still manage to make it work," she said.
"The facilities are not air-conditioned, the light is from the sunlight from the outside, but that doesn't stop them. It's still really good volleyball when we go over to play."
Thankfully, really good volleyball is also what the Golden Shield produced, both in Cuba, as well as upon their return to tournament play in Oshawa. "I think there was a lot of personal growth and team growth," Phillips conceded. "Because it didn't affect anything in our season while we were in Cuba, we took a lot more risks, as a team."
"We got to see how our strengths and weaknesses were, and how far we could push ourselves. In the season, some of us are nervous, you don't want to mess up. And our movement on the court, how fast we moved to the ball, was better. In Cuba, we had to learn to move our feet a lot more, because if you went to dive, there were splinters on the floor."
Whatever the reason, it was a new and improved version of Cambrian women's volleyball that hit the floor at Durham College, with Phillips and Shield setter Isabelle Rivest both earning all-star accolades at the tournament.
"I think I chose to play more as a smart player, rather than a "trying to kill the ball every single time" player," said Phillips. "I wanted to look for the spots that were open and the spots that would be a smarter decision, rather than showing off my skills by trying to pound the ball every single time."
While the players were all making their first volleyball voyage to Cuba, coach Beausoleil has enjoyed the experience twice before, with this latest trip earning top marks, from his end. "This trip to Cuba was a little different," he said. "Previously, we were in Havana and we played against some monsters, really big girls, really, really strong girls."
"This time, we played against girls that were basically the same level as us. Our last match, before we left, we beat them 35-33 in the last set."
That parity, combined with other key intangibles, created just the right environment for Beausoleil and his team. "The Cubans are very competitive," he said. "They want to win, their coaches want to win like you wouldn't believe. They were girls that were younger than our girls, but extremely gifted athletes."
"It is a little different kind of ball - they weren't strong defensively," Beausoleil added. "It was kind of cool, because they were just trying to bang balls at us all the time, so it was working on our defense, but we were not hitting the floors."
Currently sitting in eighth place in the OCAA West Division, but needing to secure at least seventh or higher to advance to post-season play, the Cambrian women open their second half of the season by travelling to Hamilton, facing the Mohawk Mountaineers (6-3) and Redeemer Royals (4-5) on back to back days, before returning home for a stretch of five straight games in Sudbury.
Still with Cambrian connections, we wanted to pass along a quick shout-out and congratulations to former Golden Shield associate soccer coach Jon Hussak, who was named as the new head coach of the Texas A & M International University Dust Devils earlier this month.
The long-time Sudbury native and product of the Panhellenic Soccer Club system, as a player, was previously an assistant coach with the University of West Florida, one of the most successful women's soccer programs at all levels of NCAA play. A media release issued by TAMIU noted that "Hussak developed a reputation as a tireless recruiter, with ties all over the country, and internationally, during his time in Pensacola."
Between his time in Sudbury and the move to Florida, Hussak, a teacher by trade, had accepted a position in the Northwest Territories, a stopover that offered the former Greater Sudbury Soccer Club head coach the opportunity to guide a team of 14-15 year old girls into competition at the Arctic Winter Games.