Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – With better serving and a more disciplined blocking presence, the MacEwan Griffins were able to play portions of Saturday's final men's volleyball match of the season in the City Centre Campus gym dead even with the No. 1-ranked Manitoba Bisons.
Except, try as they might, they had no answer for big No. 6 – hulking Bisons left-side Evan Jackson – who piled up 16 kills on a .500 hitting percentage to lead his squad to another 3-0 victory (25-19, 25-21, 25-22).
"We had what I thought was a pretty OK game plan, but he played well," said Griffins head coach Brad Poplawski.
"When we adjusted our block, he was able to see that and go opposite that with pace. A lot of guys can hit that shot 60 or 80 per cent, but he was able to hit it hard any direction. So his range is really good.
"He lit us up this weekend, for sure."
It's the 20th-straight win of the season for the Bisons, who sit atop the Canada West standings at 21-1.
"Is that what it is? Wow," marveled Manitoba head coach Garth Pischke, whose squad's only loss of the season came back on Oct. 29 against Mount Royal University.
"Well, I want to make it 22 before the season's over. We've got a very good team in a couple of weeks (18-2 Trinity Western), so we'll see how that goes. But it's been a great run, for sure."
Manitoba blew the lid off a close start in the first set with a 6-0 run to get to 11-6 and Jackson's big kill from the left had them up 20-10. MacEwan fought back with a 7-1 run, but were just too far behind and the set ended when Jordan Peters' serve went into the net.
The Griffins led early in the second set off some tough serving and hung with the Bisons until 20 when Manitoba seemed to find another gear, closing it out on Devren Dear's smash off the block and out.
MacEwan again had the lead early in the third and played even with Manitoba throughout the stretch drive, particularly when big Max Vriend – who finished with a team-high nine kills and three blocks – got the quick-hitter in the middle going.
But they just couldn't stop Jackson, trying everything – including subbing in their biggest reserve, 6-foot-7 freshman Mark Alexander – but nothing worked. The Bisons put a wrap on the match when Peters' kill attempt went wide at 25-22.
"They served tougher tonight and that changes everything when we're not passing as well," said Pischke. "We didn't have as many options hitting. Credit to them for coming out and putting a lot more pressure on us from a serving standpoint."
So there are positives for MacEwan to take out of the weekend, even though a sweep drops their record to 4-18.
"We made a few adjustments. Yesterday our plan was good, we just didn't execute," said Poplawski. "I thought at times our execution was better. We put a bit more service pressure on them. Our block was a little bit more disciplined. When we did keep the sets close, that's why. We were more disciplined.
"Against a team like that that you know brings a lot of offensive firepower and runs a lot of even distribution, sometimes you're trying for the hero block because you're trying to get the slam instead of blocking for the team and taking up space. At times tonight we did a much better job and trusting the guy behind to play defence."
Fifth-year setters Matthew Mohler and Joshua Peters split time in their last contest in the MacEwan gym, but that wasn't by design, said Poplawski, who subbed in the latter late in the second set. Mohler finished with 15 assists, while Peters had eight to go along with two blocks.
"They bring some different things," said the head coach. "Josh, in my six years, is the best blocking setter we've ever had.
"We looked for opportunities to get both guys in, not because it was Senior Night, but because we were trying to win a game. Mo, when he chased the ball in the second set did injure himself, so he wasn't able to go back into the match anyways, but I thought when Josh did go in for him he did a good job.
"It worked out nice that both got to play on Senior Night, but that wasn't by design. We were just trying to win a game and win a set."
Griffins' fifth-year outside hitter Ryan McDonald was also feted before the game as part of Senior Night celebrations even though he didn't play. A season-long back injury unfortunately scuttled his final season of eligibility.
Dear added 12 kills for Manitoba, while setter Luke Herr piled up a game-high 35 assists.
Both teams will have a bye next weekend before closing out their regular-season campaigns on the road Feb. 24-25. MacEwan will visit UBC-Okanagan (5-15), while Manitoba and TWU will have a showdown for first place.