Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – With thoughts of 'here we go again' echoing in their minds, the Regina Cougars saw a 12-7 fifth-set advantage suddenly turn into a 14-13 barnburner on Saturday night.
That's when head coach Greg Barthel called a timeout and had to find a way for his team to forget that they blew a 13-10 lead the night before to the homestanding MacEwan Griffins and lost 15-13 to fall 3-2.
"I was just trying to get them to relax and breathe and try to treat it like every day," he said. "If we can do that, we can solve those dilemmas that we have."
Easier said than done, but it worked. The Cougars came out of the break with a beautiful set play on a quick hitter in the middle by Conal McAinsh to win a wild Canada West men's volleyball match 3-2 (17-25, 25-20, 25-17, 15-25, 15-13) and salvage a weekend split.
"I think we had maybe a little bit more poise than yesterday, which is good to see," said Barthel. "I was happy to see they bounced back from the first set. I didn't think we played very well and MacEwan played way better in the first set than they did yesterday in the first set, so that was good.
"It was a good battle between two teams that are maybe not where they'd like to be at this point of the season and aren't used to being in those situations, so there's a lot of iffy play on both sides," he added. "It's a big learning experience for our guys because we've been in these positions and it's good for them to come out on top."
While the match went the distance, MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski says the Griffins lost it in the second set. They came out flying, carrying over the momentum they had in Friday's thrilling 3-2 comeback win from 2-0 down and dominated the Cougars thoroughly in Set 1.
Then they inexplicably went away.
"You play so well in the first set and our ability to sustain things isn't there," said Poplawski. "That's what cost us the match.
"We looked so crisp in the first and I honestly don't know what changes. We had a bad first set yesterday and we talked about having a great start today. When I said, 'great start' I didn't mean start fast and then stop."
The match was a head-scratcher, considering the teams are nearly identical in Canada West team statistics. Rather than trade points all match in some close sets like evenly-matched squads do, they went on wild, lengthy runs.
At times in the match, the Griffins looked so much better than the Cougars, you'd swear they were on their way to a cozy sweep. Fifteen minutes later, Regina's level of play was in a different atmosphere than MacEwan's. Then they'd switch again.
"I think that's a symptom of we're both relatively young teams and still learning," said Barthel. "I think they've been in similar situations as us and had some leads in sets and maybe not performed the way they wanted to when they were in the lead. We've definitely been in that position, too.
"They've got some talented players there and once they learn to win, same as us, we might be battling hard for two or three years here."
The positive for the Griffins is that they ended the match with four rookies on the floor – Caleb Weiss, Ryan Zachary, Liam Huth and Jordan Krause – all gaining valuable experience. Zachary and Shane Kerrison, who continued his strong play from a night earlier, co-led the Griffins with 15 kills each. Kerrison, Huth and Kornel Kowalewski all had six blocks each.
"I think the big thing was we didn't have Max (Vriend) tonight," said Poplawski. "He got injured in warm-up and we didn't have what should be one of our most dominant attackers. I thought Kornel came in for an unexpected start and did some good things. It's a tough situation."
Regina was led by big-swinging southpaw Matthew Aubrey, who racked up 18 kills and four blocks, while Brennan Goski had 13 and Jake Fleming recorded 45 assists.
With the result, the Griffins fall to 2-16 in the standings, while the Cougars improve to 2-18. Next up for MacEwan is a road trip to Brandon on Feb. 2-3, while Regina returns home to host UBC on the same nights.