Griffins win marathon set but come up short in match at UBC

Jordan Peters elevates above the UBC block for a blast on Saturday (Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds).
Jordan Peters elevates above the UBC block for a blast on Saturday (Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds).

MacEwan Athletics and UBC Athletics

VANCOUVER – As long as the third set between the MacEwan Griffins and UBC Thunderbirds went on Saturday night – lasting through 72 points – it's still not even close to the Canada West record.

That distinction goes to Regina's now-shuttered men's volleyball program, which knocked off Brandon 42-40 in a set in 2011.

When the Griffins beat the T'Birds 37-35 to stay alive in Saturday's match, though, it was electrifying. Although the match wouldn't end in MacEwan's favour – a 3-1 loss (25-17, 25-18, 35-37, 25-16) – there are plenty of takeaway from MacEwan's ability to grind with the match on the line.

"I really liked our attention to detail," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "That was probably the best we looked all weekend as far as really just following the system. We were pretty disciplined blocking and we did a good job defending. We made some serves. That gave us an opportunity to stay in that set.

"By the nature of it, you're going to be pretty engaged. The challenge for us is can we be that engaged in a match at 0-0. Can we start a match that focused on the details and not wait to do it in extra time?"

That will be the lingering question moving forward for the Griffins, who won three sets over the weekend against UBC but have nothing to show for in the standings, falling to 3-11 and needing a big rally over the next few weeks to have a shot at the last playoff spot in Canada West.

"First off, that's a team with a ton of potential," said Poplawski of a young UBC squad that leapfrogged them in the standings to 4-10. "That's a physical team. They jump high, they have great arms, they really put a lot of stress on all areas. They're just young right now.

"For us, they exposed some things we have to get better at. When they're blocking that well, we have to vary our shot selection and learn how to hit to score, but in different ways versus always hard in the seam," he added. "Our passing wasn't good enough and we have to pride ourselves on being a good passing team if we're to be successful. That's where we'll start next week is focus on our first contact and build from there."

MacEwan's efforts on Saturday were hampered by an injury to fifth-year outside Kai Hesthammer in the second set that forced him to the sidelines.

"We've got to be able to deal with injuries, but on a personal level, he's playing very well for us and he's quite a leader, so losing him was a challenge tonight, for sure," said Poplawski.

Fourth-year outside Max Vriend came up big with 14 kills and three aces, adding three solo blocks for the Griffins, while Jordan Peters was also clutch in the seesaw third set, finishing with nine kills and an ace.

UBC was led by three rookies: Michael Dowhaniuk put up a career-high 26 kills and a .641 hitting percentage to go with three aces, Matt Neaves had a career-high seven blocks and added 14 kills with six digs, and James Takken made his return to Canada West action with 11 kills and four digs in three sets.

"It was important for us as a young group to rebound from a disappointing third set," said UBC head coach Mike Hawkins. "I thought we had a pretty comfortable lead, but you could tell the focus maybe slipped, maybe guys were already thinking past the present moment. It was important for us to bounce back and I thought we did a good job of dictating the pace in that fourth set. They had a few kills, but I think we were pretty confident we could right the ship."

Knotted up at 12 points apiece in the opening frame, Dowhaniuk put the 'Birds up on one of his eight kills in the set. UBC went on to hit a stellar .565 percentage and fired on all cylinders to take the first, 25-17.

In the second set, Joel Regehr fired a kill and one of five aces on the night before Dowhaniuk crushed an ace of his own for an 8-2 cushion, but MacEwan stormed back to tie it at 8-8. At 10-9 UBC, Hesthammer landed awkwardly on his ankle and was forced to leave the match with an injury. The Thunderbirds rolled to 25-18 set victory after that.

UBC took control of the third set early and attacked with ease for a seven-point lead, but MacEwan capitalized on a run of T-Bird errors to narrow the deficit to one at 17-16. Peters completed the Griffin comeback with back-to-back kills to tie it at 18-18. A Jordan Deshane block sparked the 'Birds back into action and Takken earned UBC their first match point at 24-22.

The Griffins stayed alive after a pair of T-Bird errors evened it up at 24-24 and Vriend served up an ace for their own set point. Takken extended the match on another kill, and the two teams traded errors to make it 26-26. War Memorial Gym was then witness to a rollercoaster shot-for-shot contest that continued to all the way to 35-35 when a Peters kill gave the Griffins their eighth set point and Vriend then ended the marathon with a kill off the UBC block.

To no surprise, little separated the two teams to start the fourth, and the Canada West rivals were tied at 9-9. The Thunderbirds then rode a Regehr serving streak for a 5-0 run to widen the gap and cruised to a 25-16 victory.

"We actually got the start we wanted in the fourth set – we were up 8-5," said Poplawski. "But we just couldn't handle some of their serves and they're an extremely physical blocking team. They really influence a lot of shots, so they definitely put a lot of stress on our side out. We weren't able to side out or score a lot offensively."

The Griffins return home to host the Mount Royal University Cougars (11-3) on Jan. 18-19 (7:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively, David Atkinson Gym).