Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Their latest chance against an opponent they're battling with for a playoff spot evaporated in a maelstrom of nervous energy.
How quickly the MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball team can put a weekend sweep to Mount Royal University behind them will go a long way in determining their fate as the Canada West regular season winds towards its conclusion on Feb. 16.
"We had a good talk about it," said head coach Ken Briggs, whose team lost 3-1 on back-to-back nights at home last weekend to MRU – a squad they'd beaten three times previously in exhibition matches. "For the first time we were in a playoff hunt and they all knew that. I didn't see it last week, but after they talked to me, they felt immense pressure. They knew the importance of last weekend and basically tensed up and didn't deal with that well."
Briggs has seen something similar in the Edmonton sports scene a few doors down.
"Every time I listen to the Oilers' quotes, I listen to a lot of the same things what they're going through," he said. "It's the players having confidence and getting some kind of consistency. I'm listening to (Connor) McDavid talk about sticking together and playing as a group. Well, that's exactly our issue right now with the system and understanding the process. We don't have a McDavid, but it's very similar to what we're going through.
"We're still in the playoff race, but it's 'why can't we get something going?' "
Now 8-8 and hanging on for dear life to the final playoff spot in the Canada West standings, the Griffins will trek to Regina to meet the 10-8 Cougars on Friday and Saturday (6 p.m. MT both nights, Canada West TV).
It's yet another squad they're directly competing with for the final few post-season spots. Regina currently sits fifth, a win shy of 11-7 UBC. MRU and Manitoba are both just ahead of MacEwan at 9-9. Thompson Rivers, with a bye this week, sits just outside the final playoff spot at 8-10.
"For us, it's to quit shooting ourselves in the foot. It's error prevention," said Briggs of the key to their success. "It's just keeping those numbers down. Teams are battling and we're going to be able to compete with them if we don't go and make 31 errors and 15 missed serves (like Saturday). That's all in our heads."
They will need to be at their best to have a shot against a Regina team that may be better than their record indicates.
"To me, they're the most under-rated team in the league," said Briggs, whose squad lost to the Cougars 3-0 during a Dec. 28 exhibition match against them at the Saville Centre. "I think they're a top-four team. They will be there – either four or five by the end of the year, I'm pretty sure."
Led by Japanese setter Satomi Togawa – third-best in Canada West in assists/set – the Cougars boast a veteran starting lineup that can compete with anyone.
"They're a veteran team," said Briggs. "They have arguably the best setter in the league with (Togawa) from Japan who came a couple years ago. She's incredibly good, so that's just solidified a solid group.
"Quality program, good coach. They're getting to the peak with the group that's together, so it's going to be a challenge."
The other wrinkle this weekend is the fact since Regina no longer has a men's program, the women's game is the only match of the night.
"It's kind of an odd weekend with only one game, so we're playing at 7," said Briggs. "It just feels like we have way more time during the day to kill.
"I look forward to it because they're the closest to U of A as far as system and discipline is concerned. Mel (Sanford) and Laurie (Eisler, Pandas coach) are old friends, so they see things the same way."
Following the weekend, the Griffins have remaining home matches against Calgary (15-3) Feb. 1-2 and Trinity Western (16-0) on Feb. 8-9 before travelling to Brandon (3-15) Feb. 15-16.