Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The toe tag was being fitted.
The undertaker was in his backswing with his hammer bearing down on the final nail in their casket.
Down 2-0 in their match, facing set point while trailing 24-22 in the third set, the MacEwan Griffins were about to be swept out of their own gym by the visiting Regina Cougars – the last-place team in the Canada West men's volleyball ranks.
Somehow, someway they rallied. They survived. They later recovered from a 13-10 deficit in the fifth-and-deciding set and the gym roared out of its shoes as MacEwan completed one of the greatest comebacks you'll ever see in U SPORTS volleyball – a 3-2 triumph (22-25, 15-25, 26-24, 25-17, 15-13).
"I'm happy for them because they work so hard," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski, whose squad improves to 2-15 in the standings. "They earned that feeling tonight. We were down 13-10. To come back from 2-0 and 13-10 – they just showed a lot of resiliency today and made plays.
"For some of them it was their first win at home, so the chance for them to celebrate in front of their families was very nice. I think they have to enjoy that because unfortunately we haven't won as many as we'd like this year."
Fifth-year veteran Shane Kerrison led the Griffins with 23 kills – matching the greatest single-game effort of his career – while rookie Ryan Zachary chipped in 14 and Kai Hesthammer had 12 even though he played the first half of the match as a libero.
Setter Jonathan Mohler's 51 assists are the fifth-best single-game mark in MacEwan's Canada West history.
Kerrison had been in and out of the lineup this season, but when he's at his best, he hits with booming authority off the sides of blocks.
"I had a couple bad weeks of practice the last couple of weeks, so I didn't really deserve to be on the court," he said. "This week, I played good, played hard, I thought.
"I just really meshed with Jon Mohler tonight. It was really awesome. I love playing with him. He set perfect balls."
Regina will be having nightmares after they had MacEwan dead to rights in the third set. But their first set-point attempt was a service error before towering Griffins middle Max Vriend took over. He blocked Matthew Aubrey on the right side, blocked Cody Caldwell in the middle and put down an over bump to spring the Griffins from jail.
"It's volleyball," shrugged Regina head coach Greg Barthel after his team fell to 1-18 on the season. "Some little nerves probably kicked in. Good for them in coming back and having some good composure. They found a way. They mixed up their lineup in that third set and started playing a little bit better, which was good for them.
"Probably a little bit of nerves for us. We're not used to being in a position like that. We made some decisions we'd like to have back."
MacEwan rode a wave of momentum to a comfortable win in the fourth set before Regina found its footing in the fifth. A Griffins' passing error, followed by a miscommunication on a pass and Hesthammer getting stuffed at the net had the Cougars up 13-10, poised to win the match despite giving up their commanding lead.
But MacEwan came out of a timeout and pulled off their second unlikely moment of the contest – getting a booming kill from Kerrison on the right, followed by a giant roar, and tied it on Jordan Peters' cross-court kill off the side of a block. Rookie middle Liam Huth took over from there, blocking Conal McAinsh in the middle before stuffing Brennan Goski for the decisive point.
"We have the physicality and the size and they're good blockers, but at times we just don't execute," said Poplawski. "They earned the opportunity tonight and they made a play. That was nice to see."
Regina was led by Aubrey's 18 kills and seven blocks, while Goski had 17 kills on a .375 hitting percentage. Dryden Wall had 20 digs. But the stats will get lost in the sting of defeat after the Cougars were so close to victory.
"I think our opponent stepped up their game," said Barthel. "I think if you ask their coach, they weren't playing very well in those first two sets. They stepped up their game.
"We could play better than we did and probably make better decisions. Good on them for stepping up their game and winning."
The teams will meet again on Saturday night (7 p.m., David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV).