By Mark Janzen, Trinity Western University
LANGLEY, B.C. – In rematch of last year's national championship final, the No. 1-ranked Spartans earned a 3-1 (22-25 25-23, 25-19, 25-19) win over No. 4 Alberta Friday at the Langley Events Centre.
Led by Jacob Kern, who had 14 kills and hit .321, the Spartans (8-1) rallied after dropping the first set to knock off the Bears (7-2) in a thrilling four-setter that saw the home side cap the night with a pair of convincing victories.
The win marks TWU's fifth victory over the Bears in their las six meetings, including victories in both the Canada West Final Four and U SPORTS Championship tournament in each of the last two years. Last year's national championship gold medal match saw the Spartans also win in four sets to capture their second straight U SPORTS title.
Along with Kern, TWU second-year left side Eric Loeppky (Steinbach, Man.) had 12 kills. Setter Adam Schriemer (Winnipeg) had 40 assists, while first-year Jesse Elser (Calgary) had nine kills and three aces.
Alberta's Taryq Sani had a match-high 16 kills and six blocks. George Hobern had seven kills and a match-high seven blocks.
The home side took a 13-12 lead in the first set only to see Alberta go on a 4-0 run that put the Bears in front at the technical timeout. TWU evened the set at 19-19, but the Bears put up three straight points before holding on for the win. An Alberta block from Jackson Kennedy and Hobern won the set. The Bears finished the set with a 5-1 edge in blocks.
In the second set, the Bears opened a 15-11 edge, but TWU responded with a 6-1 run to tie the set 17-17. The teams traded points until 23-23, when the Spartans Pearson Eshenko (Banff, Alta.) put TWU on set point. A huge block from Eshenko and Elser on Alberta's Sani ended the set in the Spartans favour. Sani had eight kills in the set. Kern had a team-high four for TWU. The Bears hit .560 as a team, but TWU, who hit .273, had a 5-1 edge in aces and Alberta committed eight serving errors.
The teams went back and forth early in the third set before a 3-0 Spartans run put TWU up 12-9. After that, the Spartans, who hit .370 in the set, never trailed. A 4-1 run late in the set, capped by a Howe kill sent TWU to the win. The Spartans hit .370 to Alberta's .217.
The fourth set started similar to the third set, with TWU scoring three straight points to take a 13-9 lead. After that, TWU, hitting .375 in the set, rolled to a second straight six-point win. Alberta was held to just a .125 hitting percentage.
Over the final two sets, TWU had a sideout percentage of 82 per cent.
TWU Head Coach Ben Josephson
"I felt like it was one of those prize fights between two boxers with knockout power. I felt like the first set was really nervy and the way we reacted to it was really quiet and I thought they were aggressive, but neither team was playing well. There was a lot of respect for how good the other team was and both teams were really prepped and were trying to do their plan.
"But in the second set, we found some emotional plays and then our passing and serving started to pick up and then slowly the balance of play swung our way.
"I thought that was one of Adam's masterful games that isn't going to get noticed. He just slowly figured out how they were playing him and we started getting better and better offensively. That coincided with better passing and our serving started putting them in more trouble.
"I was really proud of a lot of our guys for finishing strong after a poor starts. You can't control how you start, but you can control how you finish. We're going to talk about our start and why we felt nervous, but you can control how you evolve in a night. The kids adjusted and ended up winning and that's a great lesson in how you finish. Now, I need to do a better job of prepping us for tomorrow's game."
• TWU beat the Bears in three of their four meetings last year, splitting their regular season series before knocking off Alberta in both the Canada West semifinal and the U SPORTS gold medal match.
• The last time Alberta came to the LEC, in 2015-16, the Bears won both matches in four sets.
• TWU's only loss this year was a five-set setback on the road against No. 3 Brandon.
• Alberta's two losses this year have come against No. 1 TWU and No. 2 UBC.
• The last time TWU's men's and women's volleyball teams beat Alberta on the same night was Nov. 9, 2013.
The Spartans and Bears play in a rematch Saturday at 7 p.m. (PT).