Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Unfazed by injuries to their top two players that kept them out of the lineup for a second-straight night, the Mount Royal University Cougars offered a master class in block defence for a tidy 3-0 win over the MacEwan University Griffins in Canada West men's volleyball action on Saturday.
Despite falling 25-22, 25-15, 25-21, the Griffins played a solid match themselves and perhaps deserved a better fate, but they ran into a team ranked third in U SPORTS for a reason. MRU refused to let the ball hit the floor.
"That was an absolute clinic in block defence," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "I'm not going to even talk too much about us, I'm going to tip my hat to them. Their defence is incredible.
"For our guys, they're hitting balls that they're used to scoring and all of a sudden the ball's up. It's mentally tough when you never get clean kills."
It's clear the 13-3 Cougars have plenty of depth behind Canada West kills leader Tyler Schmidt and star setter Tanner Greves, who didn't play at all in a weekend sweep of MacEwan that pushes their record to 13-3, second-best in the conference. The Griffins fall to 3-13.
"It's huge," said MRU head coach Shawn Sky about the extra experience backup setter Jackson Brennan and veteran outside Quinn Bromley received in the absence of two starters. "13-3 – it's not official, but that will definitely qualify us for playoffs and, more importantly, we're in the chase to potentially host. So, that's huge.
"The experience that those guys got just makes us stronger as a team."
Brennan led the Cougars with 40 assists, while Bromley had 10 kills. Regular starter Trent Mounter had 12 kills on a .455 hitting percentage. Overall, MRU hit the ball at an astounding .424 team efficiency.
"That actually is full credit to Jackson and the job we did in the middle," said Sky. "Last night was Jackson's first Canada West start and he was racing a little bit mentally. He did a fantastic job settling down. I thought he set a fantastic match.
"And the other thing, I thought our three guys on serve-receive were just fantastic tonight," he continued. "We were in system a lot. When you hit .400, that's what happens. That's full credit to your setter, full credit to your passers and obviously your attackers making good choices."
For a second-straight night, the Griffins were led by Jordan Krause, who had 10 kills and accounted for 11.5 points in just his second career Canada West start. Setter Caleb Weiss had a solid match with 21 assists.
"I thought Caleb made really good choices today and our passing wasn't bad," said Poplawski. "We put the ball in a pretty hittable zone – good pass, Caleb made some good sets; they just touched absolutely everything.
"On the flip side, they hit a lot of really smart shots and we couldn't match that level of block defence. We just didn't touch enough balls and give ourselves second-swing opportunities."
The Griffins' best chance in the match came late in the first set when they punched point-for-point with the Cougars down the stretch. But coming out of a timeout tied at 22, the Cougars scored three-straight points and ended it on Krause's attack error.
"Forget about records," said Sky. "MacEwan is significantly improved from last year and I know they're dealing with some injuries, too. I loved what they did with their lineup the first two sets coming out. It was good because we hadn't seen it before.
"Good on them in terms of being assertive and aggressive with some of their decisions and we really had to play at a high level."
Not that the Griffins weren't hanging around in the next two sets, but the Cougars never really gave them an opening, always staying a step ahead. Brennan won a joust ball at the net for the decisive point in Set 2 and Mounter's kill ended Set 3 and the match.
"They tipped and rolled us to death," said Poplawski. "They hit some big balls, too; it wasn't like they just went all roll shot.
"But I think late in the third set's a good example. They called a timeout at 18-20. Eirik (Thomassen, Griffins assistant coach) designs a play – 'OK, we're going to commit with the middle and be ready to go.' We make a great commit block; the middle does his job and a tip scores over top of us. So, we essentially did what we wanted, we just didn't execute on the tip.
"There were a number of those throughout the match where guys just weren't digging the ball unfortunately."
Both squads head into bye weeks next weekend with the Griffins returning on Feb. 1-2 to resume running a gauntlet of nationally-ranked teams as Calgary visits, while MRU hosts Trinity Western on the same dates.