Griffins upset No. 1-ranked team in Canada with inspired effort to keep playoff hopes alive

Haley Gilfillan celebrates a point with teammates on Saturday. The Griffins upset the No. 1-ranked Dinos 3-2 (Chris Piggott photo).
Haley Gilfillan celebrates a point with teammates on Saturday. The Griffins upset the No. 1-ranked Dinos 3-2 (Chris Piggott photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Hailey Cornelis hammered her 17th kill of the match to the floor and the David Atkinson Gym erupted in celebration on alumni night as the MacEwan Griffins knocked off newly-minted U SPORTS No. 1 Calgary 3-2 on Saturday night.

"It's huge," said Cornelis. "Coming off a win like that, it feels like you can accomplish anything really."

It will surely be an upset felt across Canada as the Dinos, who have their eyes on a national title, fell 25-15, 25-19, 12-25, 20-25, 15-9 to a hungry Griffins team eager to keep their Canada West playoff hopes alive.

They did just that. MacEwan snapped a six-game losing streak to improve to 9-11, which moves them in a tie with Mount Royal University for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Dinos, who have already clinched a spot in the top eight, fall to 16-4.

"I'm really excited for the girls," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs. "We played very similar to last night, but we finished. When's the last time we've been up two? And then we almost gifted it away because they really picked it up. But we did a lot of good things."

Cornelis led the Griffins in kills, adding 12 digs and two aces, while Haley Gilfillan chipped in 11 kills, Lauren Holmes had 10 with three aces and 13 digs and Rachel Jorvina personified a terrific defensive effort with 23 digs. Kylie Schubert produced 44 assists.

"I couldn't be happier for them," said Briggs. "I thought Rachel had an amazing game. She had 23 digs and I swear it felt like it was 53.

"Hailey had 17 kills. That's just awesome. They all had their moments. This weekend, I thought, was the least we were on time with our middles and they still made lemonade out of lemons."

Kate Pexman led the Dinos with 14 kills, 15 digs, three blocks and was a powerhouse from the service line with five aces. Hannah Tanasichuk had 13 kills, while Kennedy Snape added 23 digs and Leah Shevkenek added 41 assists.

"Grant MacEwan played excellent tonight," said Calgary head coach Natalie Gurnsey. "They played some fantastic defence. That's really hard when you're usually a team that gets some momentum on our offence and attack. I think it shook us up a little bit and they played very aggressive against us tonight."

Indeed, the Griffins looked like a completely different team than the one that went out in three straight to the Dinos on Friday night as they broke open a close first set with a 7-1 run after 10 and never let up coming out of the technical timeout. As the Dinos shot themselves in the foot with a .027 first set hitting efficiency, Cornelis ended it on MacEwan's first set point opportunity.

The second set was more of the same as MacEwan continued to take it to the favoured Dinos with a strong serving game and pinpoint passing – some of the best volleyball the Griffins have played all season. Even when Calgary pushed back behind an inspired Pexman serving run to lead 16-14 at the technical timeout, MacEwan charged to the finish on an 11-3 run, ending it on a Dinos' double touch.

"We were battling ourselves I feel like all night," said Gurnsey. "Like I said, Grant MacEwan played us really hard. They were serving us really aggressive and got us out of system a lot. It's hard to score against a really good defensive team when you're out of system all the time."

However, as Set 3 rolled around, it was if the Dinos flipped a switch and the clock struck midnight on a Cinderella story. Calgary was in system and dominant in Sets 3 and 4 with hitting percentages of .361 and .360, respectively, and seemed on their way to salvaging a match that previously seemed lost for them.

But against that wave of momentum, defying the rankings and expectations, the Griffins flipped their own switch and took the match back in time to the earliest sets, building a 7-1 lead in the fifth. Although Calgary rallied back to only trail 8-7, MacEwan, perhaps spurred on by more than 70 alumni in attendance, went on a 7-2 run to end it.

"You get that little jump in the fifth set and watch it kind of go away," said Briggs. "I just thought we brought out the best in them defensively. That third, fourth and fifth set, their big block came through. It was hard to get something through.

"But we ground it out at the end and then pushed. You can see. Even the best teams under pressure are going to make mistakes."

The Dinos completely unraveled in the waning moments of the match, posting an abysmal -.036 hitting efficiency in the fifth that will surely be a talking point as they regroup this week.

"Any time you're in a fifth set and come back from 2-0 (down), it always builds the character of your team," said Gurnsey when asked what they can learn from the upset. "I just think we keep having to learn as a group how to respond when things are uncomfortable – when there's pressure on us, when we don't like how it feels out there.

"That's going to happen if we get to nationals or in a quarter-final. We have to learn to deal with that. You can only learn when you lose matches like this and that would be the learning I hope happens."

The Griffins have four matches left in the regular season, including next week's final home weekend against Trinity Western, and a road series at Brandon. Calgary, meanwhile, will visit cross-town rival MRU on Feb. 8-9, before closing out the regular season by hosting UBC Feb. 15-16.