Griffins unable to stem Cougars' march to the finish under weight of errors in 3-1 defeat

McKenna Stevenson hits past the MRU block for one of her 13 kills on Saturday night (Eduardo Perez photo).
McKenna Stevenson hits past the MRU block for one of her 13 kills on Saturday night (Eduardo Perez photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Amid a wash of 31 attacking errors and 15 missed serves on Saturday night, the MacEwan Griffins looked nothing like the team that once sat in fourth place in the Canada West women's volleyball standings.

As Mount Royal University completed a stunning 9-2 run to close out the fourth-set 25-10 and win the match 3-1 (25-27, 25-16, 25-14, 25-10), the Griffins were a shell of themselves as they limped quietly into the night.

"I've done this a long time and that might have been one of the most disappointing performances I've seen," said head coach Ken Briggs, in his 17th season with the Griffins. "To their credit, they made it happen, but we allowed it to happen in that match. I'm really disappointed. I really have nothing constructive to say."

The result is a painful one for the Griffins after they defeated MRU three times in exhibition matches earlier this season, including during a Christmas tournament at the University of Alberta.

But with a weekend sweep in the only meetings between them that will count in the standings this regular season, MRU moves to 9-9, improving their chances of making the playoffs. MacEwan falls to 8-8 on the Canada West table.

"It was kind of a do-or-die weekend," said Cougars head coach Sandra Lamb. "If we were to lose both, we'd have no shot at the playoffs.

"It was a gritty performance by them. Chantal Park hit every shot in the book and was just rolling. It was really, really entertaining and nice to see. Our outsides were really good. We played with a lot of confidence and discipline tonight."

Park led the Cougars with 14 kills on a .357 hitting percentage, adding 11 digs and five blocks. The Griffins also had little answer for fellow outside hitter Carly Davies, who managed 12 kills on the same hitting percentage as her teammate. Libero Nataliia Klimenova had another strong game, leading a gritty defensive performance with a game-high 17 digs.

"We were pretty incredible on the defensive side in digging the balls we needed to," said Lamb. "We were able to transition those over the middle. That was something that was different than last night, so we executed in a whole different way."

Indeed. While MacEwan could only find sporadic success from the outside – repeating their woes from Friday's 3-1 loss – MRU became one of the first teams this season to slow down the Griffins' vaunted middle attack, actually winning the team block battle at the net 13-5.

"Their middles were super strong last night, so in pre-game and practice this morning, we were trying to address some of those things because we know that they basically live and die with their middles," said Lamb. "We tried to slow them down as much as we could and were obviously successful with it."

MacEwan middle McKenna Stevenson still busted loose for a team-high 13 kills on a .267 hitting percentage, but her two blocks matched the best effort from any Griffin. Zoe Cronin led the home side with 13 digs.

The Griffins fell behind in the first set off four early service errors but hung around in the proceedings behind a Stevenson ace and a smart smash by Haley Gilfillan on an over-bump. Still, the Cougars found themselves within a point of ending it at 24-22. MacEwan turned the tables, though, rallying for a 27-25 win off back-to-back Stevenson kills.

It was a taste of MRU's own medicine after the Cougars did the same thing to MacEwan in Set 2 on Friday. But, unlike Friday when the Griffins deflated and lost the match on the trot after that, the Cougars quickly brushed off the disappointment.

MRU took a 5-2 lead off the hop in Set 2 and gritted out a 16-12 technical timeout lead. Passing mistakes plagued the Griffins as MRU went on a 9-4 run after that, ending the set when Hailey Cornelis' attack went long.

From there, the Cougars were never threatened in the contest, having their way with the Griffins in all areas of the court. The home side stumbled through a stunning fog of lost confidence, looking like a shadow of itself the rest of the way.

"There was one team on the court tonight that was really wanting to play," lamented Briggs. "They really had it all. I don't know if I've seen anything like that before. They were unconscious as the game went on. I've never seen some of those players do the stuff they were doing, but to their credit … there was no way we were ending that game. They were going to do anything (to win). That's the difference right now.

"We faltered in the simple things like serving – we just made a ton of errors. There were two kills separating the two teams for the game, but they had 12 errors and we had 31. You can't give away that many points."

Midway through Set 4, the result a foregone conclusion, the Griffins limped to the finish in a march of imprecise passes, missed sets and kill attempts hit into blocks.

"I don't know what to say," said Briggs. "I've never seen a collapse like this before, yet there's always signs of it because we're a bit insecure."

The Griffins will try to right the ship as they next travel to Regina on Jan. 25-26. MRU heads into a bye weekend before returning to action at home on Feb. 1-2 against Trinity Western.