Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON — The MacEwan Griffins were taking it to the No. 6 team in the country on Friday night. Yes, you read that right.
Then the wheels fell off and nationally-ranked Calgary did what nationally-ranked teams do. They took over, wrapping up a hard-fought 3-1 win (29-27, 22-25, 25-20, 25-20) over the 3-10 Griffins, who played their best match of the season.
"I was really happy with our performance," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs. "We did everything we talked about. We had our fourth-year athletes – our oldest athletes – play like experienced players and I thought our young ones just got stronger and stronger.
"I just can't say anything negative about tonight. Statistically, we played them tough. If we had any Achilles' heel, it was just missed serves. I think that really hurt us. But in the end, we limited the best blocking team in the conference to seven blocks. We outblocked them 11.5 to 7."
With the score tied 1-1, MacEwan staked themselves to a 17-11 lead in the third set and seemed in complete control of the match. But the Dinos switched setters – taking out starter Leah Shevkenek in favour of freshman Lexis Peart – and proceeded to go on a stunning 9-0 run that proved to be the turning point in the match.
"MacEwan certainly had all the momentum at that point, but our subs came in and did an awesome job off the bench to just change our attention and change our focus and get us back in that match," said Dinos head coach Natalie Gurnsey, whose squad moves to 10-3 on the Canada West season.
The Dinos were led as they usually are by Kate Pexman on the left side, who finished with 18 kills, while the attack was also well spread out with both Jaylynn Moffatt and Laura McManes netting 10 kills each. They really got things going in the fourth set to close out the match.
"That was so key," notes Gurnsey. "MacEwan is such a great defensive team and it was so key that Jaylynn was able to get them out of their rhythm, so that it can open up gaps in the block for Kate Pexman. We have to have both of them but we need Jaylynn first."
The Griffins looked rusty early in the first set as Pexman dropped two unblocked smashes on them and some errors mounted to allow Calgary to skate to a five-point lead. But they settled in and battled back to take their first lead, 21-20, when Lauren Holmes' serve tipped off the net and dropped for an ace.
That set off an epic back-and-forth battle with rallies galore that finally went in the Dinos' favour, 29-27, when Brianna Solberg's smash off the block was too much for MacEwan to handle.
"What I loved, the first set was awesome," said Briggs. "It was just toe to toe. Neither side got on a little run there. Realistically if we don't shoot ourselves in the foot at game point and miss a serve … that's just being in those situations more and more is getting us stronger and stronger."
The clutch points in the second set went MacEwan's way, though, as McKenna Stevenson slammed down an overbump to end it in favour of the Griffins.
That led into the third set where the Griffins strung together some of their strongest play of the season. They mixed in a great off-speed tip by Rozendaal with some of Cassidy Kinsella's strongest work as Stevenson loomed large in blocking down the middle.
"I can't say enough good things because it's been a long time coming," said Briggs. "The kids feel really good about it. They know they let up there and gave that one run away, otherwise it would have been a different story. When you're up 2-1 that puts even more pressure."
Kinsella was a star for the Griffins throughout the match, recording a game-high 21 kills, adding 11 digs. Rozendaal was also at her best, raining down 15 kills on a .270 hitting percentage.
The teams will meet again on Saturday (5 p.m.), but there's no doubt this was a key win for the Dinos, who strengthened their position within the top teams in the conference.
"At this point every match we're playing is building momentum and putting us in the best position that we can control for playoffs," said Gurnsey.