Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The overall impact that fourth-year middle Haley Gilfillan is having on the MacEwan Griffins this season is remarkable.
Middles are important aspects of any successful women's volleyball team, for sure, but they don't typically dominate the statistical categories like she has so far in the in 2018-19 Canada West season.
Entering a weekend series against Saskatchewan (Friday, 6 p.m.; Saturday, 12 p.m., both at David Atkinson Gym), Gilfillan is tied for the Griffins' lead in kills (30), has the best hitting efficiency on the team (.400), leads the team in points (47.5), is second in service aces (9) and is also second in blocks (13). Heck, she's even among the team's digs leaders (sixth with 20), even though she doesn't play a passing role.
"She just understands the game a lot more," said head coach Ken Briggs. "She's always had an offensive element, but she's scoring and she's scoring big.
"She's a good defender and has one of our best serves," he added. "It's kind of a nice package to have for a middle. They don't always get the credit for doing the little things like serving and digging."
Forming one of Canada West's top 1-2 punches in the middle with fourth-year McKenna Stevenson – who leads the Griffins with 19 blocks (second in the conference) – Gilfillan is having success against the opposition, regardless of their pedigree. In MacEwan's opening-weekend sweep of UBC-Okanagan last month, she matched up against reigning Canada West first team all-star, 6-foot-5 Aidan Lea, and held her own.
"It was understanding that you're not necessarily blocking the 6-foot-5, you're taking away the space that that girl wants to hit it down into," said Briggs. "All of a sudden, she's limited in that area. You can't block a 6-foot-5 if everything's perfect, but in volleyball, we've seen 9-out-10 rallies, not everything's perfect."
Added Gilfillan: "I kind of had to throw out the hope of getting a stuff block and just accept the soft blocks with her. The chances of me stuff blocking her were not very high, so just getting those positive touches was something I focused on more."
That growing understanding of the tactical part of volleyball has Gilfillan giving her team a chance to win every time out. Although they fell short in two matches against Manitoba last weekend, the Griffins' success in the middle is something that they can build off of.
"I think a lot of it has to do with Kylie (Schubert), our setter," said Gilfillan. "She was able to find a lot of seams and a lot of times hold their middles. They were unsure of where she was going to set, so that helped us out as middles.
"Also, they were a bunch blocking team, so that left us lying on the step, which both McKenna and I found very successful, so I think just being able to hit that line – because we've been practicing that a lot – helped with our success at Manitoba."
The key for MacEwan in both of their weekends so far has been the serve-receive battle. They won it against UBCO and lost it against Manitoba, which directly co-relates with their results.
"It wasn't even overall performance, it was at key times – the situational serve, you need that pass or how to end runs and rallies," said Briggs. "That's what we'll work on now.
"Overall, I thought we made some adjustments, we did some good things," he added of their last game. "I was happy with our statistics, just the timing of our errors was not good. That's pressure and we're still learning how to deal with pressure."
Gilfillan thinks that aspect is coming along for the team and should be better this weekend.
"I just think it's a lot of staying calm on serve-receive," she said. "Myself, I don't pass because I'm a middle, but just supporting the girls. Everyone on my team is very capable of passing very well, so it's just supporting the girls and showing we trust them.
"Hopefully, this week will be a little bit better. Serve-receive in practice has been going better."
With four graduated seniors gone from the program this season, leadership has fallen on Gilfillan, and others, as they try to guide a talented young team into a playoff position. Gilfillan admits she's still growing into the role, which includes taking care of off- and on-court aspects.
"Definitely holding the girls accountable – I've started trying to do that a little bit more," she said. "I'm not always successful, but I hope that as the season goes on I continue to do that and push the girls to play their best."