The Conestoga Condors have soared to new heights this season.
Not bad for a team that, one season into its OCAA volleyball revival, had a heck of a time getting off the ground in the fall.
The new bench boss for the women’s team, Marek Gwozdz, was hired in mid-August, around the same time schools are ready to welcome their players back to campus for the fall season.
Their first tryout attracted four athletes, not even enough to field a full starting lineup.
And then there was the college support staff strike.
“He (Gwozdz) started recruiting people out of hallways, off the street, using word of mouth after hearing that girls had played last year or somewhere before just to get people out,” said Tiffany Pinksen, the Condors’ 5’5” leading scorer who found out about the team on the final day of tryouts after spotting a poster in the hallway of the college.
“We’re still pulling players in if they’re available, but we’ve managed and [Gwozdz] has worked with what he’s been given.”
A few months later, without a summer of recruiting players, without widespread club ball experience on the roster, without overwhelming height at the net or a hard-spiking outside hitter, the Condors (7-11) are playoff-bound and visit Barrie’s Georgian College Grizzlies in a crossover qualifying match on Feb. 18.
The winner moves on to the eight-team OCAA championship tournament, also at Georgian.
For some teams, like North Bay’s Canadore College — who haven’t qualified for the post-season since 1997 — making the playoffs is a once-in-a-decade or more reward.
But after a 16-year layoff from OCAA volleyball and with an average height of about 5’7”, the Condors, with six rookies on the roster, are in just their second season of re-existence.
For Gwozdz, that was the goal all along.
“I’m always trying to challenge myself, so right from the start I wanted to get the team into the playoffs,” said Gwozdz, who also coaches under-15 club volleyball in Waterloo.
“I told them, let’s compete against the top teams in our division and see what happens.
“If you say you want to play in the playoffs, you can jinx yourself, but we were aiming for the playoffs and I knew these girls had what it takes.”
Competing in the West Division is no easy feat. North Bay’s Nipissing University and Toronto’s Humber College — who have the ability to retain players for four or five years — own the last six OCAA championships, with Humber winning four straight finals over Nipissing heading into the 2011-12 tournament.
But the Condors were able to improve upon last season’s 3-19 record thanks to solid play on the road — wherethey had a 4-5 record — and an ability to take care of basics like defense, positioning and setting, despite being the only team in the league without a player in the top 50 in scoring.
“The girls show a lot of passion on the court,” said Gwozdz, whose Condors got the nod as OCAA female team of the week in January before a minor upset over fourth-place Niagara. “They hustle, they dig a lot of balls and they have to do that because we don’t have a lot of height. And they’ve gelled together well as a team, that’s their strength.”
They also have a coach who is invested in the program’s success.
A self-described “volleyball junkie,” Gwozdz has been involved in the sport for more than 30 years, playing provincial-level club volleyball in his native Poland before moving to Canada.
A few years ago he started coaching at the Ontario Volleyball Association level wih the Waterloo Tigers program.
“He’s amazing,” said Pinksen, a graduate of Forest Heights Collegiate Institute. “He’s positive and keeps us motivated, makes us want to show up for practice.
“If he could play, he would. Put a wig on and he would be on the court with us for sure.”
More importantly, Gwozdz knows the pain of losing his college team. He was a setter on the Condors men’s volleyball team before the school pulled the plug on the program in the 1990s.
He hopes his players won’t have to experience that void.
“I transferred to another school, but I was looking forward to another season,” he said of his final year as a Conestoga student. “It just didn’t happen — cutbacks. It was disappointing.
“But KW has a very vibrant volleyball culture with lots of local talent and lots of players . . . so I’m looking forward to many, many years (at Conestoga).”
This article, by Jordan Ercit, originally appeared in the Kitchener Post on Thursday, February 16, 2012