The Western Mustangs women's volleyball team has been a rare bright spot in what has otherwise been a forgettable winter season for the Mustangs athletics department.
The team, currently ranked 10th in the U Sports Top 10 rankings, is looking to make a run at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) title. And their journey enters its next chapter on Saturday as they host the Queen's Golden Gaels in an OUA quarterfinal matchup.
The 15-4 Mustangs enter the postseason having lost two of their last three matches. But with the third-best record in the province, the team is confident that they have what it takes to return to the OUA Final Four for the third straight season.
The Golden Gaels finished the regular season with a record of 10-9, but were hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six matches. In their only regular season showdown, the Mustangs left Kingston on Nov. 12 with a 3-1 victory over the Golden Gaels.
"If practice Tuesday was any indication, the team is feeling super confident," said Mustangs head coach Melissa Bartlett. "I know we've had a few uncharacteristic losses in the last couple of weekends and they're pretty determined to not let that happen again. Queen's is a team we haven't played since early November so we can't assume we'll win big since we beat them then. But if we trust our system we'll come out on top."
The Mustangs led the OUA in kills, hitting percentage and assists during the regular season. And with Queen's finishing last in the province in blocks, the Mustangs' offensive firepower could prove too much to handle for the Gaels.
The Mustangs are led by Kelsey Veltman, a third-year middle who has been one of the most dominant players in the OUA this season. Veltman led the province with 353.3 total points, while ranking third in kills and hitting percentage and second in blocks per set.
Veltman is nearly impossibly to shut down. The Mustangs will be more than willing to take advantage of her dominance against an inexperienced Queen's middle.
"Every team is going to scout her, but most teams don't have a weapon that can effectively stop her," said Bartlett. "I would say against Queen's that's certainly the truth. They lack that experience in the middle so that's an area that we'll be attacking."
Veltman has been the bedrock of the program since her arrival in London. There is immense pressure on her to perform and lead Western to its first OUA championship since 2011. But for her, the expectations are business as usual.
"There's definitely pressure," said Veltman. "There are points where we'll be in the middle of a tight set and the coach will be like, 'OK Kelsey, what do you want to hit right now?' And I take it on in a business manner. It doesn't intimidate me. This is what I have to do and move on. I used to feel pressure when I was younger, but this year I take it as something I have to do."
While Veltman has established herself as one of the nation's top players, the Mustangs can also utilize their depth of talent to make a run at the OUA crown.
Setter Kat Tsiofas ranked fifth in the OUA in assists per set during the regular season, while Aja Gyimah and Melissa Langegger will be key cogs in the offensive game.
On defence, the Mustangs will rely largely on libero Courtney Sestric, who had 2.94 digs per set during the regular season. Sestric and the Mustangs will gear much of their defensive game plan towards shutting down Caroline Livingston, who has been a dominant force for Queen's throughout the season.
"Our right side blocker and centre are gonna have to work really hard to get a solid block up and us middles are just gonna have to work even harder to close it and close as many blocks as we can," said Veltman on what it will take to defend Livingston. "She's a great player and she has so many angles and shots she can make but we're well prepared and have a perfect defence set up around her and we're gonna key in on her."
While the Mustangs are taking it one game at a time, an OUA championship has been the goal since the offseason. A return to the Final Four for the third straight season would be an incredible accomplishment and a testament to what Bartlett has built.
But the team has greater goals than simply appearing in the Final Four.
"I would say we're trying to focus on match at a time but this team has big goals and we recognize this weekend as the first step to reaching those goals," said Bartlett. "The team will be disappointed with anything but first because we know we're capable of being at the best team and if we play at our best level we are the best team in Ontario."
The Mustangs take on Queen's on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Alumni Hall.