By Sean Rooney on October 20, 2016.
On paper the Medicine Hat College Rattlers women’s volleyball team looks young, with a lot of first- and second-year players.
Their captain’s story alone suggests there’s more than meets the eye.
Setter Kaila Gavel is probably the most experienced second-year player you’ll ever meet. In her first year she was named the Rattlers rookie of the year â€”among all sports.
Then, in 2015, she was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma and bone cancer. Undeterred, she stayed with the team as an assistant to coach Kim Stonehouse even though her weakened immune system due to chemotherapy meant no bus trips.
On Friday, she returns to the court to play after an 18-month hiatus.
“I’m still a little on edge, but I just know it’s going to emotionally hit me,” said Gavel. “It’s going to be a really special night. I think back to a year ago, I stood on the sidelines bawling during O Canada. It’s such an unreal feeling to think I’m standing on the end line, I get to step on that court, play that game again.”
She’s had to work extra hard this summer to regain her strength, going from squatting a mere 55 pounds to more than triple that. No longer thin as a rail due to the effects of the cancer and subsequent treatment, Gavel leads a team that expects to contend for a conference crown.
“She’s beyond her years in maturity and the understand of what it means to be a team player,” said Stonehouse. “Last year, her being sidelined and sitting by me on the bench and experiencing the other side has helped her in growth as a player. Now she understands all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.”
It’s far from a one-player team, but having the inspirational Gavel as leader can certainly project positivity throughout the lineup. They host Olds at 6 p.m. Friday night, then again at 1 p.m. Saturday, and will ultimately look to improve on last year’s 11-13 record. Olds beat them out for the division’s final playoff spot in the spring, posting a 13-11 record.
“It’s looking good, we look totally different,” said Gavel. “Just the past two other years I’ve been here, the dynamic is different. Our rookies have really stepped it up, the first week they were challenging the vets.”
Aside from the obvious stars like Gavel and second-year power hitter Amber Stigter, Stonehouse is excited for middle Paige Burton and outside hitter Kennedy Lewis to take on bigger roles. Reminded that just two years ago she was about to start a season with a team that hadn’t won a single match the previous year, Stonehouse gets goosebumps.
“It is the progression that has happened, and that’s because of the players that have come into the program and bought in to what we’re trying to do,” she said.
“It’s become apparent that each year we become a better and better team. We’re a team that other teams are taking seriously now.”