After playing a spectacular and dramatic match just to reach the final eight, it seemed as though the Pandas felt the weight of the moment a little and played flat against Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, which went on to finish with a silver medal.
Tightening up at the most pressure-filled moments is an issue that plagued the Pandas this year, and their coach felt it coming on the minute she saw her group hit the floor.
“We came out right in the warm-up and I had players I was concerned about right from there,” said head coach Tara Anderson. “They were just tight and stressed. It’s a big event and it’s hard sometimes to mentally handle those situations.
“We struggled with that all season.”
What makes it especially hard to swallow is the match the Pandas had to win against Strathcona Christian to reach that quarterfinal game, a match Anderson says was as dramatic as you could ever ask for and showed a competitive side from the Pandas unlike any they’d shown all year.
“We played fantastic in that match; as good as I’ve seen us look all year,” said Anderson, whose team knocked off Strathcona Christian in a three-set nail-biter. “The effort and passion was there and they just weren’t going to be denied. It’s just too bad we couldn’t carry that over into the quarterfinals.”
The good news for the Pandas is nearly the entire team, save two, will return next year and for many it will be their third season with the varsity club.
“The core of our team is coming back so I anticipate having another strong season next year, even stronger,” Anderson said. “They’ll have a lot more experience under their belts, especially in these pressure situations. You have to think that having been there a couple of times will help.”
The Pandas have been in two straight provincial tournaments, though have just missed out on the real success. Anderson hopes the third time can be a charm.
“We should know what to expect and be better mentally prepared,” she said. “(The mental side) is our Achilles heel with this team right now. It’s not our ability to win because that is there, it’s our ability to perform at those high levels consistently and at the most important times.”
Anderson points out that all teams finishing ahead of the Pandas at provincials were schools Magrath had beaten along the way this season. Skill-wise, she says, the Pandas are right there with any team in the province, but focusing on the task at hand when the pressure is on simply eluded them throughout the season.
“When it comes time to play the big game and it matters, then we need to perform,” Anderson said.
All that aside, the Pandas enjoyed a very successful season and showed they won’t be out-classed by anyone. Those positives are what Anderson hopes her team will take with them into the offseason.
“Next year will be this group that I’ve sort of brought along, all those girls will be graduating next year,” said Anderson. “Whether we win or not, if we finish just playing our best then we’ll walk away with our heads high and no regrets.”
Jocelyn Maxwell and Elizabeth Charlesworth will both graduate at the end of this school year, ending their Pandas careers last weekend.
It’s not a large group to graduate but Anderson says their leadership and skill will be missed next year.