Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – With back-to-back-to-back wins over national championship contenders, it feels like the MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball team has already scaled the gnarliest part of Everest.
A successful final weekend of regular season play at non-playoff team Brandon (4-18) this Friday (5 p.m. MT) and Saturday (4 p.m. MT, both on Canada West TV) is all that's needed to secure the first playoff berth in the program's Canada West history.
"It's in our hands and we're in a much brighter position than we were a couple weeks ago," said Griffins head coach Ken Briggs. "And we're playing really good ball."
Less than two weeks ago, it seemed improbable the Griffins could catch a playoff spot after a string of six-straight second semester defeats left them three games below .500.
But the reason they have a chance is due to two weekends of interstellar play – knocking off U SPORTS No. 1 Calgary before taking out No. 2 Trinity Western (twice!) – shocking upsets that seemed impossible on paper.
The Griffins are now 11-11 and tied for sixth with Thompson Rivers University and Manitoba, all narrowly ahead of Mount Royal University (10-12) and Saskatchewan (9-13) for the top eight positions that qualify for the post-season.
"I think the last two weekends have given the girls confidence," said Briggs. "Having two weekends in a row gives them the idea that it wasn't a one-off.
"We're playing good ball now as a group. They feel good with what each other brings to the table. It's totally up to us. It's exciting because it would be way worse if you're scoreboard watching. It's our own destiny."
Indeed. Should the Griffins win both against Brandon, they're in the playoffs for sure, possibly as high as sixth place. If they win one, their probability of making it is still strong. Lose both, though, and their chances are in the wind, dependent upon other results.
TRU visits UBC-Okanagan (2-20), Manitoba travels to Trinity Western (18-4) and MRU is at Saskatchewan.
The ratio of sets won/sets lost is the first tiebreaker, while the second one, should it be required, comes down to a season-long compute of each team's points for/points against.
Needless to say, there are myriad possibilities in play, so the Griffins won't worry about the math, instead focusing on taking care of their own business. And Briggs notes, nothing's a given when they play Brandon, despite the recent roll of success the Griffins may be on.
"Trinity (Western) was the only team we'd never won a set against in our history," he noted of last weekend's monumental achievement. "Brandon, we've only beat once in our four years. It's a tough place to play and when they've come here, they've played well, too.
"They're a very well coached team," Briggs added of friend Lee Carter – whom he once coached with at Grande Prairie Regional College. "He's just such an intellectual coach – he studies the game. Lee tries so many things. I'm preparing for 10-12 players who could be on the court at any time. It's not just 'here's your starting lineup.' And they have one of the best outsides in the league. An outside can win you a game."
That would be Nikala Majewski, who is having a monster season, sitting second in Canada West with 363 kills. For context, that's one shy of the best production in MacEwan's history (Cassidy Kinsella's 364 in 2016-17) and she still has two games left.
Part of MacEwan's resurgence has also been due to the play of their outside hitters. Lauren Holmes, Hailey Cornelis and Carly Weber were difference-makers in the upset wins over TWU, supporting a middle attack led by Haley Gilfillan and McKenna Stevenson that is one of the best in the conference.
Briggs feels the key is the overall play as a group, which is finally putting it all together at the best possible time.
"It took this long for people to understand what was needed and it just steamrolled after that," he said. "In the end, it's always our serve, serve-receive game that's going to make a difference. Now we've reduced our errors. I think they understand defence better.
"We've spent since the beginning of January (learning about) what our system gives us," he continued. "That shows up in the block totals or the dig totals because you're doing your job and starting to understand it. It came together with this group. Hopefully that continues."