Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Floor-denting kills were traded like blows between two heavyweight fighters in their prime.
Sell the poster: Max Vriend vs. Kevin Negus.
Two of the top players in Canada West went toe-to-toe on Friday night at the David Atkinson Gym, nearly overshadowing a match that was also worth remembering – a hard-fought tooth-and-nail 3-1 win for the Manitoba Bisons over the MacEwan Griffins in Canada West men's volleyball action.
Vriend and Negus combined for an astounding 55 kills in the 25-16, 26-28, 31-29, 25-20 result, both eclipsing the conference's previous high watermarks for most in a match this season.
A full 30 of those kills went to Vriend, the MacEwan Griffins' fifth-year outside hitter, who broke his own school record of 28 that he posted in five sets against Winnipeg almost exactly a year ago.
"Max is a heck of a player," said Manitoba head coach Garth Pischke. "We were putting as many guys on him as we could all game and he was still coming up with big hits. Probably the same thing with Kevin, too. I think Max played a great game and gave us a lot of trouble. When he plays like that, they're going to be in any game with anybody."
Negus had 25 kills to pace the Bisons, while Owen Schwartz added 17, Jon Laube had 14 and Jack Mandryk recorded a 60-assist night for the Bisons, who snapped a four-game losing streak, improving to 4-5 in the standings. MacEwan suffered its eighth-straight loss to fall to 1-8.
Much as he has been this season, Vriend was a one-man army for the Griffins, adding four blocks to his 30-kill night.
"You play volleyball because you like volleyball," he said when informed he broke his own school mark. "You don't play for records. I think I said this the last time, too – I have a team that pushes me in practice and that really helps and makes me better every day. I have a coach that's hard on me, which helps as well. You kind of show up to play volleyball and it's the result."
If only MacEwan had others going with him, it could have been a night Vriend might long remember. But the Griffins had no one else in double figures for kills (Jefferson Morrow was next best with nine). Thomas Watchman contributed 52 assists and the Griffins outblocked a team that led Canada West in the category entering the game but fell short.
"I think they won the serve-pass battle," said Vriend. "They were more efficient, and I think that was the difference tonight."
It was a game of inches, especially in the pivotal third set when MacEwan couldn't close it out despite leading 24-22. Manitoba fought back to take control and the teams traded points before the Bisons ended the marathon 31-29 on their sixth set point attempt.
"It's huge for us because we've had a history of losing those this year," said Pischke. "In fact, last weekend, we lost four sets that were really close. We've got to start winning a few. The only way you win those is coming up with a big play when it counts, and we haven't been doing that.
"We've been playing great until 22, 23 and just couldn't make that big play. We made a couple today and that was the difference in the match."
As for the headliners, Vriend and Negus certainly fed off each other. A full 44 per cent of the time a kill was announced in the match, it was either off the hand of Vriend or Negus.
"He's also a good player," said Vriend. "He plays a lot of volleyball as well. He's not here for records either. It's kind of cool. You build a little bit of a rivalry between the two of you because you know he's going and you want to stop him and he knows you're going and he wants to stop you."
The teams will meet again on Saturday night (6:30 p.m., David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).