Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
BRANDON, Man. – The end result is about as heartbreaking as it gets.
After losing 3-1 (14-25, 25-14, 25-16, 25-21) to the Brandon University Bobcats in Saturday's season finale, the MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball team fell short of the first playoff spot in their Canada West history by the slimmest of margins – losing a three-way tiebreaker of 12-12 teams.
In the sets won/lost ratio – which serves as Canada West's first tiebreaker – both Manitoba and Mount Royal University finished with 44 won vs. 48 lost, while MacEwan had 43 wins and 49 losses.
Stunningly close. And achingly disappointing for the Griffins, who will miss the post-season dance.
"One or a hundred. It doesn't matter. It's disappointing," said head coach Ken Briggs of the narrow margin.
"This is a tough one. This is really hard. I had set a goal for myself for this program in five years to be in the playoffs and we just came up short.
"We look back on the ones we lost during the year and that's what you think about," he added. "It could have been win one set here and there in November that could have made the difference."
The Griffins thought their sterling play down the stretch would make the difference in the end. They rattled off four wins in their last five matches – including three over two of the top teams in the country, Calgary and Trinity Western – and still fell short.
In any other year, what they did would have been enough. But in a wild February of Canada West women's volleyball, MRU also upset Calgary before going on the road and beating Saskatchewan twice, Manitoba rallied from 2-0 down to become just the second team to win in Trinity Western's gym all season, and TRU – who finished sixth at 13-11 – also came from behind to save a win against UBCO.
"The four teams that are battling all travelled yesterday and all won somehow," noted Briggs. "Even the UBCO game, UBCO was in total control and they lost in five on a bunch of crazy errors. Manitoba was down in the fifth set even and then all of a sudden, they ran off four points in a row.
"When you look at it, the teams that beat us out – Mount Royal and Manitoba – both beat us when we played them during the year. I guess what goes around comes around. But it certainly was a fun ride."
MacEwan's highs were higher than any of the pack of four aforementioned teams, but their lows were lower and that was ultimately what cost them. Just like when they lost badly to MRU at home last month, the Griffins got stuck in a rut of non-confidence against 5-19 Brandon on Saturday and couldn't get out of it.
Knowing a win would punch their playoff ticket, MacEwan came out and took care of business in the first set, controlling it from start to finish. They ended it on their first set point opportunity when Brandon went off the antennae.
The Griffins seemed on their way when they marched out to a 5-1 lead in the second set. But then the wheels inexplicably fell off. They couldn't pass, timing was off, service errors began to mount and MacEwan spent most of the set sending free balls back Brandon's way.
Suddenly, the Bobcats had all the momentum and they cruised on a 14-3 run to the finish, tying the match.
"One of their girls went back and had a serving run and you start doubting yourself and make a mistake and a bad decision," said Briggs. "It's just indicative of confidence. We haven't done that for four weeks. Nothing I can do. We tried everything, and we don't have a lot of depth and we had a couple passengers today. We just couldn't make up for that."
The third set was more of the same. Any time the Griffins made a positive play to try and steal the momentum back, they'd mess up a serve (sending four of them into the net early in the set). That led to the Bobcats going on a 12-3 run to end it and go up 2-1 in the match.
MacEwan conceded an early 7-0 run to fall behind in the do-or-die fourth set, but refused to wilt, coming within one three times before they were able to tie it 21-21. But, boom, the final four points went to the Bobcats for the stunning result.
"We just played a loosey, goosey team that had a great time out there and just got better and better," said Briggs, whose team dramatically lost the serve-receive battle. "When things go bad, that's what's going to go."
Lauren Holmes led the Griffins on Saturday with 13 kills, five service aces, 11 digs and three blocks, while Rachel Jorvina had 26 digs. With one ace, Haley Gilfillan established a new MacEwan Canada West record for most in a single season with 50.
That doesn't ease the sting of missing the playoffs, though.
"This team has done more things historically for MacEwan than any other team yet just falls short," said Briggs of their wins over teams that will be at the nationals next month. "It's going to take weeks to recover from this. I know that fourth year group is just devastated, like hide-in-a-hole devastated. If there's one bright thing it's that everybody's back."
The Griffins will lose only one graduating player – libero Zoe Cronin, who didn't play the final weekend due to an injury. So, all of the players on the court Saturday have a chance at redemption in 2019-20.
"Experience means a lot," said Briggs. "They've had different experiences than we've ever had before. We've been part of a race. We've had to play a real variety of the teams in the standings.
"I'm really proud of the girls. They did everything that they could and in a couple weeks we'll regroup."