Cornelis savouring final season in what's been an incredible journey to starting lineup

Hailey Cornelis smashes one over the Brandon block during a match last weekend. The fifth-year senior starter has come a long way since entering the program as an unheralded prospect (Eduardo Perez photo).
Hailey Cornelis smashes one over the Brandon block during a match last weekend. The fifth-year senior starter has come a long way since entering the program as an unheralded prospect (Eduardo Perez photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Mrs. Incredible can often be seen practising with the MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball team.

Saving the world one kill at a time.

In reality, it's Hailey Cornelis in costume – her favourite one to wear during the squad's traditional team-building Thursday practice sessions where players come dressed for a Halloween party.

"Obviously playing with everybody throughout the years is exciting. All the little stuff that we do – theme practices and off the court stuff – are memories that you take with you," said the fifth-year senior, who is savouring the final stretch of her university career.

What she's been able to accomplish is nothing short of incredible. Coming into the Griffins as an unheralded prospect out of tiny Legal, Alta. and Morinville Community High School, Cornelis has risen through the ranks to become a full-time starter at the top women's volleyball level in Canada.

"She was that unsung kid from a small community that nobody expected big things from," said Griffins head coach Ken Briggs. "Basically, she's been on the court since Year 2. She had a role early on. Out of necessity because she's just consistent, she's carved a place for herself in this program and now I can't imagine life without her."

Cornelis will lead the Griffins (6-4) into their final action of the first semester this weekend when they welcome Manitoba (2-8) to the David Atkinson Gym for matches on Friday (6 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m., both on Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

Cornelis enters the weekend third on the Griffins in kills (75) and digs (79).

"She's become very consistent," said Briggs. "She understands the game, she knows her role, she's kind of the steady one. I can move her around, she can play in all situations. And she's still learning, which is great. She's constantly trying to learn and make her game better."

That growth mindset is a big reason why the 5-foot-10 Arts major has been able to succeed going against bigger opponents. As she prepares to graduate from the program, hers is an example of what an underdog can accomplish.

"I wasn't really known at all until my U17-U18 years when I kind of got more recognized," she said. "It's just using that as fire to compete and push really hard to get shown. Then to finally get here and work my way up into a starting position – it was that grit all the way through."

As one of four fifth-year seniors who start for the Griffins, Cornelis helps form a balanced attack that keeps opponents on their toes. Last weekend was a perfect example of that when she was one of four players to tie for the Griffins' kills lead in both of their victories over the Brandon University Bobcats.

"It's just nice to have such a veteran group out there," she explained. "With Kylie (Schubert) being able to spread out the offence and all of being able to contribute, it's huge. That's why we're way more effective this year because it's even across all areas of the court."

That has the Griffins on a four-game winning streak and they'll be aiming to make it six against a Bisons team that comes into the weekend on a four-game slide. That is if they don't take things for granted.

"Manitoba's always tough for us," cautioned Briggs. "They're a great defensive team. They have really good athletes. They're in a bit of a transition phase. They have a really good crop of first year players, so I'm expecting to see 10 or 12 people on the court as the weekend goes on. He has depth and he's willing to use that. They've been one of our toughest battles since our very first year. Ken (Bentley)'s a really good coach."

MacEwan faced a similarly tough defensive team in Brandon and were able to persevere through the play of libero Caitlin Le, who is playing at an all-star level for a winless team. Essentially, balls that normally would have been kills, stay alive. Manitoba isn't dissimilar to that, so Briggs knows his team will need to be patient and follow their plan.

"On home court, first of all we need to manage the energy," he said. "We're to a point now where we understand playing from behind and playing ahead. Just try to keep it rolling. Limit our errors. That's the best thing we've done this year is just be more efficient. If we do that, we'll have a good chance of being successful."