Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Almost incredulously, the MacEwan Griffins will look back on their Saturday match against the University of Calgary Dinos and wonder how they recorded a defeat in the standings.
There were so many ways they had this in the bag – up 2-0 in complete control and then later leading the entire way to two match points in the fifth set – but the reality is the Dinos somehow found a way to steal a 3-2 win (23-25, 21-25, 25-20, 25-18, 16-14).
"We didn't find a way," sighed Griffins head coach Brad Poplawski. "I want to get this program to where we do find a way.
"It sucks right now, but I know we'll learn from it. We had a lot of young guys that played tonight in different regards, so they need to learn from it and build."
If there was one big reason why the Dinos came out on top, it was the play of Curtis Stockton.
Putting forth one of the most individually-dominant performances of the Canada West men's volleyball season, the Dinos' fifth-year outside hitter recorded 40 kills on a .417 hitting percentage. The mark will go down as a U of C record – breaking the 30 kill night that Denis Zhukov had on Jan. 31, 2003 against Trinity Western.
Dinos head coach Rod Durrant's eyes nearly popped out of his head when he glanced at a scoresheet afterward.
"You know what, he's a good kid, he works hard and he's a gamer," he said. "He brought it tonight with numbers that surprise us.
"They believe in each other, they were playing for each other tonight and just left it out there. MacEwan played so well. We're very thankful to find a way."
Not only did Stockton make things happen offensively for the Dinos, but he was the guy who sealed the 16-14 win in the fifth set when he blocked Kai Hesthammer, swinging hard from the left side.
Throughout the match, the Griffins had no answer for the hard-hitting lefty as he got kills through blocks, off blocks and over blocks. It didn't really matter what they threw at him.
"We could not stop No. 5 tonight," said Poplawski. "We tried different things, we tried different matchups against him, we tried different blocking assignments against him, we tried releasing to him, we tried mixing up how we block against him, and we mixed timing.
"It's very rare that a guy plays that well. I tip my hat to him. He beat us tonight. It was pretty unreal."
MacEwan lost two close sets to Calgary on Friday night in a 3-1 defeat, but came out with an interesting strategy in the first set Saturday. Poplawski saved Canadian junior team middle Max Vriend, who has been battling a stomach bug and barely played on Friday, for the final few points. Like an ace relief pitcher, the big Barrhead native entered the set with the Griffins up 23-22 and put it away with a huge block in the middle.
In the second set, the Griffins were in charge the whole way as the Dinos suffered through bouts of sloppy play. MacEwan put it away when Dino Alex Bader's kill attempt off the pipe play went into the net.
So Durrant switched setters, taking out veteran fifth-year starter Alex Cook in favour of third-year Blain Cranston. It worked as the Dinos gained all the momentum and had the Griffins on their heels through the fourth set.
Poplawski noted he could see his squad's energy level drop as Lee Iverson started to get fatigued and bothered by some nagging injuries.
"I thought our energy levels dropped in relation to that," he said. "They played better, for sure. A team's always hard to close out. We've been there, down 2-0 and that third set's hard."
For Durrant, it was a matter of chipping away and it helps when you have a player like Stockton that was seemingly finding a way to get a kill most times he touched the ball.
"One point at a time," he said of the Dinos' strategy. "You can't get too far ahead of yourself. I thought our second setter came in and changed the offence a bit for the third and fourth set. They got to a good jump in the fifth set, so we went back to our fifth-year guy and he found a way, and set the right guy.
"When a kid gets 40 kills in five sets, he's definitely the difference maker."
Hesthammer led the Griffins with 17 kills, while Iverson had 14 to go with a team-high 14 digs.
After the loss, the Griffins fall to 2-12 on the campaign. They'll next host Brandon on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m.).
With the win, the Dinos improve to 7-7 in the Canada West standings as they make a bid for the seventh and final playoff position, tied with Saskatchewan for that spot, but the Huskies have two games in hand. Calgary now travels to Manitoba for a pair of contests on the Jan. 20-21 weekend.
COURT VOLLEYS … Lee Iverson and Haley Gilfillan of the Griffins were the recipients of the annual NAVC (Northern Alberta Volleyball Club) scholarships, presented by the visiting club at half-time. Each is worth $1,500.