HAMILTON – Hamilton has been kind to the Trinity Western Spartans, and it was there that they capped a remarkable turnaround to the 2015-16 season with the ultimate prize in CIS volleyball: the Tantramar Trophy. The venue that saw the Spartans win their first CIS gold in 2006 delivered their fourth title on Saturday, as Trinity Western dispatched the host and top seed McMaster in four sets.
"I'm proud of these guys," said Trinity Western head coach Ben Josephson. "They worked so hard in the last few weeks when we thought we were out and we rallied together and played like every loss would be the last day of our season.
"To show that much resiliency is something to be proud of."
With their tournament title on Saturday, the Spartans have now won three medals at the Burridge Gym, with gold in 2006 and 2016, and bronze in 2007.
After dropping the opening set and struggling to cope with the occasion, the Spartans adapted and won the next three to end a tumultuous year in style. Sitting 9-9 at their conference bye week in late January, Trinity Western was in danger of missing the Canada West playoffs altogether, before going 5-1 to finish the regular season, and losing just two sets. They then ran the table in the knockout rounds, and delivered a semifinal sweep to CIS no. 1-ranked Alberta Golden Bears.
"We were going into the last 10 games of the season having to win six of 10, and it was hard enough as it was before we lost the next two," explained setter Adam Schriemer of his team's late-season predicament. "But this group never quits, and the way we can come together is so special. I've never been part of any group or team like this."
Enduring a trying time while teaching his players the system he believed would deliver success, Josephson believed that it was his players' trust that saw them turn things around.
"We were doing all of the right things and we were learning the things that we needed to learn, it just wasn't producing results yet," said Josephson. "We just kept saying to trust us that we're doing the right thing, and to stay together. They love each other, so staying together was easy for them.
"When they started producing some wins, the wheels started to grip the earth."
It was a dream start for the home side with Trinity Western's nerves clearly rattled, as Alex Elliott helped McMaster to an 8-3 lead with an ace. Getting nearly every offensive look they wanted, and keeping the Spartans well out of system with heavy service, the Marauders stretched their lead to as many as nine points at 18-9. A four-point Trinity Western run, facing set points, forced Preston into a timeout, before Stephen Maar killed to draw first blood for the hosts.
Fourteen assists for MacMaster's setter Andrew Kocur in the opening set hinted at the ease with which the Marauders were generating offence, as he propelled his team to a hitting percentage of 35.
"We did exactly what we wanted to do early," said McMaster head coach Dave Preston. "It started the way we thought it would. I thought we did some really good things in the first half of that match, but we let it get away from us in the second half.
"Kocur did a great job of getting Alex the ball, and he had some really clean looks and made Trinity Western adjust, which opened up Maar for the pipe."
The balance shifted in the second, as the Spartans began to find their feet. With their offence awakening, Trinity Western won three consecutive points to take the teams into the technical timeout with the Spartans leading 16-15. That marked a clear shift, and Trinity Western took nine of the next 14 points to level the match at a set apiece.
After hitting just 17 per cent as a group in the first, the Spartans reached 50 per cent in the second set and turned up the pressure with their serve. They had four aces as a team in the set, versus just a single service error.
Even again, the teams opened the third set with side-out volleyball, before McMaster began to build a lead after the technical timeout. Errors, and an increasingly stout net presence from the Marauders, saw the Spartans drop off the pace, and McMaster led 19-15 after a block by Elliott on Aaron Boettcher. But the Spartans slowly chipped away at the deficit, and embarked on a 6-1 run to come from behind and win the set 26-24.
Having overhauled the third and grabbed hold of momentum, the Spartans raced ahead in the fourth set. Trinity Western was keeping the Marauders off balance with the serve and closing out at the corners with authority, and collected six blocks as a team in the fourth. The duo of Sclater and Scheerhoorn had 13 kills, as the Spartans made quick work of the last set in their remarkable run to the championship.
"Getting hot down the stretch is all that really matters," said Josephson. "You need the guys in the roles just playing their best.
"You can outplay better teams if you have everything going in the right direction. I don't think we were the better team here, but we played better tonight."
NOTE: The 2017 CIS Men's Volleyball Championship tournament will return to the Canada West conference, when the University of Alberta plays host for the seventh time in the history of the Tantramar Trophy. The Golden Bears won the inaugural championship in 1967.
Kills: Scott Plocktis (13), Blake Scheerhoorn (13)
Points: Blake Scheerhoorn (17), Ryan Sclater (15.5)
Blocks: Aaron Boettcher (5.5), Ryan Sclater (3)
Digs: Tyler Koslowsky (8)
Service aces: Blake Sheerhoorn (3)
Player of the match: Aaron Boettcher
Kills: Stephen Maar (20), Alex Elliot (9)
Points: Stephen Maar (22), Alex Elliot (14)
Blocks: Alex Elliot (5), Jayson McCarthy (1)
Digs: Andrew Kocur (11), Jayson McCarthy (11)
Service aces: Stephen Maar (2)
Player of the match: Alex Elliott