Griffins complete improbable weekend sweep of Spartans to bolster playoff hopes

Hailey Cornelis celebrates with teammates after her service ace ended Set 2 in MacEwan's favour on Saturday night (Eduardo Perez photo).
Hailey Cornelis celebrates with teammates after her service ace ended Set 2 in MacEwan's favour on Saturday night (Eduardo Perez photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Confidence is a huge thing. Fighting for your playoff lives is another.

Combine both, stir and you have the recipe for perhaps the most improbable weekend sweep in the U SPORTS women's volleyball ranks this season.

The MacEwan Griffins pulled off the unthinkable on Saturday, beating the Trinity Western Spartans 3-1 (25-16, 26-24, 22-25, 25-14) to put the wraps on the biggest weekend result in program history. The victory comes a night after they beat the U SPORTS No. 2 Spartans 3-2 and is their third in a row over national championship contenders after they beat former No. 1 Calgary last weekend.

"It was really unexpected, but it's incredible," said MacEwan middle blocker McKenna Stevenson. "We're on Cloud Nine."

With the result, the Griffins continue to come back from the dead in the Canada West women's volleyball playoff race, moving back to .500 at 11-11. They pull into a tie with Manitoba for seventh, both a win up on Mount Royal University for the final playoff spot after the Cougars also posted a big win, 3-2 over Calgary, to get to 10-12.

"I don't know if I've seen a better performance by a team here in a long time, if at all," said Griffins head coach Ken Briggs.

"I might have to wear the All Blacks jersey all the time," he added of the famous rugby kit that he donned for the Senior Night game in honour of graduate Zoe Cronin, who hails from New Zealand. "I wore it in her honour, but now it's kind of lucky. But the girls deserved that, they played well."

TWU falls to 18-4 but with Calgary losing and dropping to 17-5, the Spartans remain in the driver's seat for top spot in the conference with one weekend of regular season play remaining.

Despite the unexpected result that will likely knock them down the U SPORTS rankings, the Spartans plan to glean some lessons out of it.

"I think whenever you play a playoff team, we don't go in expecting to win or expecting to lose," said Spartans head coach Ryan Hofer. "We go in needing to take care of our side of the court.

"With that, there's lots of good takeouts. They exposed some stuff on us that we need to work on. We're going to get to work. We could very likely see them in two weeks."

Lauren Holmes led the Griffins with 12 kills, 12 digs and five blocks, Stevenson had 11 kills and eight blocks, and Haley Gilfillan posted six kills, five service aces and six blocks. Hailey Cornelis added 10 kills and 13 digs for MacEwan, while Kylie Schubert's 35 assists and Rachel Jorvina's 23 digs were also a big factor.

As a team, the Griffins out blocked the Spartans 16.0 to 4.0, no small feat against Canada West's best team at the net.

"I think in video we really just focused on their setter's cues and their hitters," said Stevenson. "They're big girls, but they have really long arm swings and I think we finally got that timing down. It just all came together, which was awesome to see."

TWU was led by Hilary Howe, who posted a match-high 16 kills from the left side, while adding 17 digs. At times she was dominant, but the Griffins found a way to block her in the fourth set.

"She started out really strong," said Hofer. "We just have to be at a point where we can make good shots. Even though they're going to be stable and strong at us, we just have to make smart shots. We have to find ways of using the block and finding the edges of it."

Savannah Purdy added 12 kills for TWU, while backup setter Olivia Heinen, in for injured starter Brie O'Reilly, had 35 assists.

In all, the Spartans committed 27 attacking errors to MacEwan's 11, ultimately losing because their opponent played a cleaner game.

"I thought that was the difference last night," said Hofer. "I thought MacEwan did a really good job at the net and put pressure on our hitters, forcing us to really work hard to find a way to score."

In the opening set, the Griffins went on an early 9-0 run, survived a push back and closed it out on a 12-4 trot when Cornelis blasted it off the block.

TWU threatened to run away with the second set behind some big Howe kills, but MacEwan hung tough and refused to go away. The Spartans led 16-15 at the technical timeout and had a set point at 24-23, but resilient MacEwan rallied to win 26-24 when Cornelis' serve tipped off the net and found the floor for an ace.

Set 3 was much cleaner for TWU, who found a way around the MacEwan block. The teams traded points throughout, but the Spartans took the most important ones, rattling off a 4-0 run to win 25-22 when Carly Weber's attack went long.

MacEwan was clinical in the fourth set, however, shutting down Howe and generally blocking everything. They led 16-8 at the technical timeout and never let up, blocking Purdy for the decisive match point in a fourth-set rout.

"When you look at that – 53-11 in kills and errors," said Briggs of MacEwan's stellar .309 team efficiency. "To do that against that team – that's the best blocking team (in Canada West). We (out-blocked) them 16-4. But the kids really listened and bought in.

"I can't be prouder or happier for them."

The Griffins will close out the regular season with a visit to Brandon (4-18) on Feb. 15-16, while TWU returns home to host Manitoba (11-11).

"I think we just need to keep this looseness that we have – a looseness with some urgency behind it," said Stevenson. "We're just working so well together. Our system's working beautifully.

"We really need to build on that and have confidence in the fact our past two weekends have been so successful and just carry that into our last conference games."