Griffins come close to historic first win over Golden Bears but late set points elude them

Kai Hesthammer hits against the Golden Bears during a preseason match at the Saville in September. Hesthammer had 16 kills for the Griffins in a 3-1 loss to Alberta on Friday (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Kai Hesthammer hits against the Golden Bears during a preseason match at the Saville in September. Hesthammer had 16 kills for the Griffins in a 3-1 loss to Alberta on Friday (Robert Antoniuk photo).

MacEwan Athletics and Alberta Athletics

EDMONTON – They had them. Until they didn't.

An elusive first program victory over their cross-town rivals in men's volleyball within their grasp, the MacEwan Griffins lost late points in three of four sets to fall 3-1 to Alberta on Friday night at the Saville Centre (26-24, 22-25, 27-25, 27-25).

The Golden Bears improved to 5-0 on home court against the Griffins, who claimed a small moral victory in winning their first set at the Saville Centre since entering Canada West in 2014.

"I'm sure we did (have some building blocks), but when you have those opportunities, it's really tough to not capitalize," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "Unfortunately, we didn't.

"It's very mixed emotions because I'm so happy with so many things we did, but at the same time when you have a team that good and you have opportunities to win a set, it's hard not to think what if?"

Coming in to the weekend on a four-game losing streak, MacEwan was fighting hard in the opening set, creating a see-saw battle with Alberta that led to an even score 14 times. Yet two late Griffin service errors shifted the momentum toward the Golden Bears and Alex McMullin sent two consecutive kills to the MacEwan court soon after to earn the 1-0 set lead.

Down 12-9 in the second set, a MacEwan timeout paved the way to a 7-3 run for the Griffins to erase the deficit, using a subsequent Taryq Sani error at the service line to start a 5-1 run and almost cement their historic set win. A double-touch violation on a set by Alberta third-year middle Lucas Dykstra gave the Griffins the win.

The third set continued the ongoing back-and-forth battle on the scoreboard, though the Bears didn't do themselves any favours by making seven service errors to keep MacEwan close and making four attack errors as part of a 6-0 Griffin run to let the road team pull ahead to 23-21. With the Griffins chasing set point, Alberta sent a free ball over to MacEwan, but the visitors bobbled the chance. And it cost them the set.

"It was similar to last week," said Poplawski. "We had a free ball at set point for us that we passed over the net."

Small momentum swings started the final set, but neither squad could find an edge to build up a sizeable lead, bringing the teams to a 25-25 score when MacEwan setter Caleb Weiss and fourth-year outside hitter Carter McIntyre both went up for a free ball at the net and the Golden Bear won the joust.

On a long rally with both sides negating tough kills by their adversary, the final point came anticlimactically when Kai Hesthammer sent his attempt into the net.

"The frustrating thing for me is you're going to give up some big kills, but they scored with way too many tips and rolls," said Poplawski. "Our block did a pretty decent job taking up space – way, way better than last week. I think that's a testament to the work the guys put in throughout the week.

"The guys really worked hard this week and we did block better. Sometimes we were in a good zone and they'd roll it or tip it around our block and we weren't picking that up. When the sets are that close, those are big points."

Max Vriend led the Griffins with 16 kills and four blocks, while Hesthammer had 16 kills and eight digs. Weiss had 44 assists.

Alberta was led by McMullin, who had 20 kills, and Sani, who netted 18. Jordan Canham had a game-high five blocks.

Alberta improves to 6-1 on the season while the Griffins fall to 2-5. The two teams will meet again on Saturday for game two of the weekend series, game time starting at approximately 6:30 p.m. at the Saville Centre.

"We have to keep putting ourselves in these situations," said Poplawski. "Seven of the last 15 sets we've lost have been by two points, so the more opportunities we get, we give ourselves a chance. It's just important guys keep working hard and earning those opportunities."