Golden Bears need five to top MRU in gritty playoff opener

Golden Bears need five to top MRU in gritty playoff opener

Connor Hood - Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics

EDMONTON - The University of Alberta is now just one game away from another trip to the Final Four after knocking off the Mount Royal Cougars 3-2 (24-26, 25-20, 17-25, 25-25, 15-8) in Game 1 of their best-of-three Canada West quarter-final series, Thursday night at Saville Community Sports Centre. 

This was the first-ever playoff meeting between Alberta and Mount Royal, and already the third five-set win for the Golden Bears this season after a pair during conference play in early February. 

Third-year outside hitter Alex McMullin paced the Bears attack with 13 kills on Thursday, also finding the scoresheet with eight digs and two assists. Fifth-year setter Brett Walsh finished with a game-high 46 assists, 11 more than Cougar setter Samuel Brisbane. 

Riley Friesen led the Cougars with a match-high 22 kills on a staggering 51 attempts, but committed 11 attack errors and eight service errors in the loss. Tyler Schmidt spun in 16 kills as well for MRU, but was also plagued with inconsistency, finishing with 10 attacking errors and five from the service line. 

Hoping to earn their first-ever playoff win over Alberta, the Cougars came out the aggressors, jumping out to a quick 12-7 lead. The teams went back-and-forth for the remainder of the set, with eight consecutive switches of serve late in the first. A service error from the Bears, followed by a Lachlan Polson ace gave the Cougars the 26-24 set win. 

However, the hometown team quickly built up momentum early in the second, racing out to a 10-6 lead. Three kills from Taylor Arnett, and two each from McMullin, Ryan Nickifor, and George Hoborn led Alberta to the 25-20 win. 

The rollercoaster match carried over into the third, as this time MRU owned a comfortable 10-4 lead early. Five attack errors early in the set were too much to overcome, as the Cougars coasted to a 25-17 set win. Friesen was also a force in the third, recording nine of the Cougars 17 kills in the set, improving their team hitting percentage by over 450 points from the second to the third. 

But once again, the set win meant very little in terms of momentum, as was once again the Bears turn to win a set comfortably. Neither team played a clean set, combining for 13 service errors in the fourth, however the Bears were able to take control thanks to 12 kills and no errors to the Cougars eight kills to seven errors. Coming off the bench, fifth-year hitter Kevin Proudfoot spun in four kills in the fourth, while adding to the Cougars woes with a pair of long service runs. Alberta closed the set on an 8-2 run. 

Unlike previous sets, this time that domination carried over into the fifth, as the Bears closed out Game 1 with a convincing 15-8 win. Another six attack errors and three service errors from the Cougars sealed their fate on Thursday. 

Game 2 of the conference quarter-final series is slated for tomorrow night, with first serve set for 7:00 p.m. at Saville Community Sports Centre.