Griffins push Golden Bears to the limit in five-set defeat

MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski speaks to his team during a preseason match at Alberta in September. The Griffins nearly upset the Golden Bears, taking them to five sets on Saturday night (Robert Antoniuk photo).
MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski speaks to his team during a preseason match at Alberta in September. The Griffins nearly upset the Golden Bears, taking them to five sets on Saturday night (Robert Antoniuk photo).

MacEwan Athletics and Alberta Athletics

EDMONTON – The feisty MacEwan Griffins threw a scare into the No. 4-ranked Alberta Golden Bears men's volleyball team for a second-straight night, this time pushing them to five sets before succumbing to a Canada West loss.

The cross-town rivals traded set wins in a back and forth match that went in Alberta's favour (25-19, 19-25, 25-20, 20-25, 15-6) at the Saville Centre.

"We gave them everything we had," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "They had to battle. We definitely pushed them and that's what we wanted to do.

"We talked a lot about wanting to give ourselves a chance. Tonight, we did."

They might have pulled off the upset if not for a slow start in the fifth set that they never could recover from.

"In the fifth set, unfortunately, if you get off to that start it can be tough to come back because you just run out of time, going 15," said Poplawski. "Our guys did a lot of really good things to give themselves an opportunity to go five with one of the top programs in Canada."

Staying undefeated against the Griffins in Canada West play (10-0) required the offensive efforts of third-year Golden Bears outside hitter Taryq Sani, who tallied 19 kills and two aces, while sophomore left side Jackson Kennedy and third-year middle Jacob Deinum notched 18 and 12 kills, respectively. Third-year setter Max Elgert led the team in assists (54), aces (three), and digs (15).

Senior outside hitter Kai Hesthammer had a team-high 15 kills for the visitors, while fourth-year outside hitter Max Vriend netted 14 kills and third-year outside hitter Jordan Peters cracked the double-digit barrier with 10. Third-year setter Jonathan Mohler recorded 37 assists after being thrust into duty on short notice with starter Caleb Weiss nursing an injury.

"He came in in a tough spot and set a pretty good match, so that was good to see," said Poplawski.

"Our outsides, again, kind of carried the mail for us," he noted. "At different times, all those guys all took turns (being great). I thought as blockers they were a lot more disciplined."

After outplaying Alberta for stretches in Friday night's game, the Griffins came out strong on Saturday, taking an early 6-1 run for a 7-4 lead in the opening set, but attack errors got the Bears even.

Tied at 14, Kennedy earned two straight points for the Bears with a block assist and a kill, starting an 8-3 run by the home team, leading to an eventual 1-0 set lead when rookie left side Braedon Friesen put his third kill of the set off the MacEwan block and out.

The Bears were the ones committing attack errors in the second set, however, with four straight giving the Griffins the early advantage on the scoreboard before they made five more as part of a 7-0 run by MacEwan to break a 12-12 tie. Each of those streaks both started with errors at the Alberta service line, so it seemed fitting that Elgert's attempt into the net tied the set score at 1-1.

Both teams improved their attack percentages in the third set, each attacking at 30% or higher, but after the Bears claimed the lead after a short run to make it 6-4, they never gave it up again, Sani doubling his kill count in the match with seven in the third set alone. The Ajax, Ont. native powered a monstrous kill off of Vriend to set up set point, earning the 2-1 set lead for Alberta by pushing his 14th kill of the match down through the Griffins block.

Hesthammer got the road squad even with a stellar performance in the fourth set, attacking at a blistering 64% with eight kills, including the first and last of the set, his eighth coming off of Kennedy to the crowd on the opposite side.

The fifth and final set was dominated by the Bears, with every point earned by their own hand through a kill, a block, or an ace, leaving MacEwan no room for error in an effort to find their first-ever win against their Edmonton-based opponent.

Sani shone in the spotlight in the final moments, putting an ace off of Hesthammer into the antenna for a 14-6 score before pushing another kill through the road team's block to end the match.

"Basically, we just lost our passing a little bit and their block was able to key in on a couple of guys to force us into errors or get the block," said Poplawski of the fifth set. "Johnny was having to run everywhere because the passing wasn't quite good enough in that fifth set to give us more than two options."

After pushing one of the conference's elite teams to the limit, there's no doubt the Griffins are growing more confident by the minute.

"They should be confident," said Poplawski. "They're playing good ball and when they do the things they're supposed to do, they're talented. I really hope that they are starting to feel that way.

"Belief can be a pretty powerful thing, so I hope they're starting to see that when we play we can play with anyone. Hopefully, that's something that we can carry the rest of the year."

Alberta improves to 7-1 on the season while the Griffins fall to 2-6. The Bears head out on the road next weekend to face the Manitoba Bisons while MacEwan takes the "bye" before playing the Thompson Rivers WolfPack in Kamloops, B.C. the following weekend.