Jefferson Hagen / MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Christian Sides' match-point serve went off a Thompson Rivers defender and into the seats as the Griffins erupted in celebration on Friday night.
MacEwan's men's volleyball team has their first win of the season.
"I just kind of closed my eyes and hit it and hoped for the best," said Sides, the third-year middle, who had a strong game with nine kills and a .389 hitting percentage.
"It felt amazing. All the hard work we've been putting in – I know it's been paying off before, but it's nice to finally realize our games."
Putting forth their best team effort of the Canada West season, MacEwan improved to 1-8 with a 3-1 (28-26, 19-25, 25-22, 25-22) win over Kamloops-based TRU, who are now also 1-8.
"We've talked about how hard our schedule has been and we know that," said Griffins head coach Brad Poplawski, whose squad opened the season with four-straight weekend doubleheaders against nationally-ranked teams. "But it still doesn't matter if you're not getting results.
"The guys worked so hard and there's been so many games I thought they've deserved a result this year. Some of our four or five set losses, a couple of things could have flipped the script and gone the other way.
"I'm just really happy for the guys. It was a good week. A lot of guys contributed tonight. There was good distribution. We had guys come in and serve and play defence and block. We had some guys do different things, so I thought it was a good team effort."
Kai Hesthammer led the Griffins in kills with 10 and added 10 digs. Max Vriend added nine kills and 10 digs, while Shane Kerrison and Kornel Kowalewski also recorded nine kills in a truly balanced attack. Libero Andre Arsenault led the team with 17 digs.
"Everyone played great," said Sides. "We all bought into the system and played team volleyball. We were all coming together after every point. It was a great game."
The first set was back and forth the whole way. Vriend came up big at several points for the Griffins, lining up on the right side to unleash some giant kills.
A controversial in call when the ball looked long infuriated the Griffins, who were shown a yellow card. Although that put TRU up 26-25, the Griffins steeled their nerves and scored a 28-26 win when a pair of double blocks that Kowalewski was in on shut down the WolfPack offence.
The second set, though, belonged to TRU when the WolfPack seized control midway through, going on an 8-0 run after Randy Grundmann's kill made it 15-9. The Griffins did a valiant job attempting to close the gap, but were never able to get closer than within four with Grundmann raining down kills, including an off-speed pitch that put TRU up 24-19. They closed it out on their first try.
"It was a scrappy game," said WolfPack head coach Michael Hawkins, who is originally from Sherwood Park. "Both teams were playing fairly good defence. Both teams were putting a lot of pressure on the other side, so that's why there were a lot of errors scored.
"For both sides, it's really tough to settle into a game like that. When you're getting big kills and big blocks, it's easy to settle in to feel the flow. But when it's missed serves, attacks out and net calls, it kind of stunts a lot of the flow.
"I think that's why the game went so back and forth. Neither team could steal all the momentum," he added. "I think in that set we did take control, we just put more pressure on them. We made fewer mistakes than they did."
Grundmann, who entered the game among the Canada West leaders in kills, helped his cause with a game-high 24 of them, while Daniel Eikland rod recorded 15. Cole Keddie added 20 digs for the WolfPack.
"He's a dynamic attacker," said Hawkins of Grundmann. "The big thing for him is to stay aggressive in out of system situations and I thought he did a good job of that tonight."
Another controversial call dogged MacEwan midway through the third set when a point was reversed, turning a seemingly great Sides block into a net violation. The Griffins were shown a red card for complaining and fell behind a few points before finding their footing.
When they did, it was Hesthammer's clutch finishing down the stretch that led them home. The hard-hitting Norwegian had two-straight back row kills before MacEwan finished off a 25-22 win when Arsenault's dig off a massive Grundmann smash set up Kerrison's kill off the block and out.
The fourth and final set was neck and neck also, but a combination of kills from Kerrison, Hesthammer and Lee Iverson set the Griffins up with match point and Sides delivered on the service ace.
The overall theme for MacEwan: Clutch play after 20 points.
"In the past, we used to find ways to lose those sets," said Poplawski. "There's been some thing we've done differently this year. I have to say our sports psychologist (Erin Brennan) plays a role in that. She's awesome. I think that she helps in that regard.
"The guys looked more comfortable after 20. Our team is usually the opposite where we look more tense. Today, it was no surprise. The way we acted translated into the way we played. We didn't get tense, which is what we maybe did in the past. So I thought that was a good learning experience to win some of those tight sets."
The teams will meet again on Saturday night (6:30 p.m., City Centre Campus).