Ben Matchett; Dinos Communications
CALGARY – They had to overcome early jitters, but the top-ranked University of Calgary Dinos found a way to come back from 1-0 and 2-1 set deficits to defeat the University of Alberta Pandas 3-2 (15-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-17, 15-13) Friday night to open their best-of-three Canada West semifinal in the Jack Simpson Gym.
Calgary (24-3) leads the series 1-0 and will look to close it out Saturday night in Game 2. An Alberta win would advance the series to the limit, with Game 3 scheduled for Sunday, if necessary.
It was an entertaining battle fitting the long rivalry between the two programs, with the home side able to find just enough to eke out the win.
"I told the team, we wouldn't be playing UofA if it didn't go five sets," said Calgary Head Coach Natalie Gurnsey. "They just play such a different style of volleyball than us and try to get us out of our comfort zone. We're constantly just battling to stay within our Dinos style, while still making the adjustments we need to to keep the ball in play. With two different styles of play they really clash, and it makes it tough to win."
Things couldn't have started better for the Pandas, who raced out to a 9-0 lead in the early stages of the match thanks to a combination of strong serving and unforced errors by the Dinos. Julia Zonneveld had three of her dozen kills in the match during that initial 9-0 run, and though the Dinos settled in after that, the hole was too deep and Alberta took the opening set with relative ease, 25-15.
"That's the most nervous I've seen us play, and it made us tentative – which is not our style," said Gurnsey. "We don't play well when we're tentative. Not much you can do within that set, all you can do is try to build some momentum, flow, and confidence for the next set. At that point we were just trying to minimize our errors and try to get comfortable within the match."
Both teams played better in the second – the Dinos significantly so. After picking up just three kills in the opener, Calgary hit an even .500 in the second with 13 kills. It was neck-and-neck throughout each of the second and third frames, with the teams each picking up a 25-23 win to make it 2-1 Alberta heading into the fourth.
There, it was the Dinos' turn to go on a run. Calgary jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then led by as many as eight as they forced the fifth set with a 25-17 win. In the deciding set, Calgary led 8-5 at the switch but the Pandas managed to claw back into it and take the lead at 11-10. But a 5-2 run for the Dinos ended it, with a block by Beth Vinnell and Kenzie Vaandering sealing the win on match point.
Vaandering, a freshman, subbed in early for Calgary and played a significant portion of the match, picking up four kills in the position typically held by the injured Brianna Solberg. Setter Lexi Peart also provided a spark for the Dinos, picking up 27 assists along with two kills – one of which tied the fifth set at 12-12.
"Lexi just gave us the fire, but the stability that we needed to use our people the right way, and Kenzie really filled Brianna's typical job, passing dimes, keeping the ball in play, and staying really calm and steady," said Gurnsey. "We haven't put her in that situation all year, but she embraced it and was a very big part of our win tonight."
Kate Pexman led the way with 18 kills for Calgary, with Beth Vinnell picking up a dozen. Laura McManes and Jaylynn Moffatt each had eight, and Moffatt was named the Dinos' Mikasa Canada player of the game.
That honour on the Alberta side went to setter Eryn Orysiuk, who in addition to 48 set assists picked up eight digs and eight kills on the night for the Pandas. Erin Corbett was the kill leader for Alberta with 13, with Zonneveld adding her dozen and Shauntelle Hogg reaching double digits with 10.
The Pandas committed 19 service errors in the match against just seven for the Dinos. Alberta held a 9-7 edge I blocks, while each team recorded six service aces in the match.
First serve for Game 2 goes at 6 p.m. Saturday night in the Jack Simpson Gym, and CanadaWest.tv will have exclusive live coverage.
Photo by David Moll