Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Max Vriend laid down the gauntlet, breaking a MacEwan University record for kills in a Canada West match with 28.
Somehow, the Winnipeg Wesmen fought off a monster day from the Griffins' best player as their own top guy – Daniel Thiessen – hit back with six of his 22 kills in the fifth set to post a 3-2 victory (21-25, 28-26, 25-20, 18-25, 15-12) in Canada West men's volleyball action on Saturday night.
The result splits the weekend series after the Griffins won a 3-2 nail-biter on Friday. That setback really stuck in the Wesmen's craw.
"We still kind of felt the pain of losing last night, definitely," said Thiessen, who leads Winnipeg with 120 kills this season. "I think we brought that fire into the fifth set today."
Clearly, these teams are dead even, although you wouldn't know it from looking at the standings. Winnipeg moves to 4-6, while MacEwan will enter the semester break at 3-9.
"A win in our standings is important at any time of the season, so this one isn't any more important just because of the timing of it," said Winnipeg head coach Larry McKay, whose group is on the honourable mention list for the national rankings. "They're a really good team. Brad (Poplawski) has done really well here. That's a very good team for us to play against.
"As you can see, essentially we're tied with them – lost last night in five and win tonight in five."
Besides Thiessen's production, Winnipeg got 14 kills from Adrian Dyck, 13 from Garrett Jones and 12 from Ethan Duncan as setter Mikael Clegg, who had a game-high 58 assists, really spread things around nicely.
Vriend's 28 kills for MacEwan broke a school record that was previously held by Lee Iverson, who had 27 in a five-set loss to Calgary in January 2017. The 6-foot-8 outside was particularly dominant in the fourth set for MacEwan. His .511 hitting percentage is third best in MacEwan history, while his game-high seven blocks crack the top-10.
"He was good tonight," said Poplawski, MacEwan's head coach. "I'll be honest, I challenged Max a little bit this morning, saying 'we need you to be that guy for us.' Right sides in this league have to solve problems and he did."
Added Vriend of getting the record: "It's the result of the semester. It's nice to end it individually on a high note. Guys push me in practice every day and push me on the court."
Kai Hesthammer added 17 kills for the Griffins, while Jordan Peters chipped in 16. Despite not starting the match, setter Caleb Weiss still managed 50 assists, sixth-best in MacEwan history.
The Griffins came out strong in the match and took the first set with a bout of late strong serving that pushed Winnipeg into errors. Vriend ended it on the first set point opportunity with a huge attack.
The second set would prove pivotal to the match. By all rights, the Griffins should have walked away up 2-0 after leading 24-22. But they failed on four set-point chances – two on attacking errors and two on service errors – and the Wesmen rallied to steal it 28-26.
"You give yourself that chance and ideally you want to close it out," said Poplawski. "Guys were trying. We made a few errors at key times. When you have a chance at 24-22, you hopefully can close it out and we just unfortunately didn't."
That seemed to deflate the Griffins, who couldn't cut into Winnipeg's new-found momentum and dropped the third set, too. The Wesmen's blocking game came to the fore and they shut down MacEwan's attack and built a commanding 24-19 lead before ending it by blocking Hesthammer.
Vriend was unstoppable on the right in the fourth, though, piling up nine kills, including the decisive one on set point to force a fifth-and-deciding set.
But he didn't have a kill in the final set.
"He's a good player. If his shots are on, there's not much you can do," said Thiessen. "I'm not really sure how we did it. It just worked out."
MacEwan fell under the weight of some early fifth-set errors and couldn't get up off the mat.
"We pushed and gave ourselves a chance, but against a good side out team that passes that well, it puts a lot of stress when you get down three or four points," said Poplawski. "Their defence, first of all, was phenomenal. They made it really hard on us to side out in that fifth set, they dug everything. Then we had a few errors."
So, Winnipeg walks away with heads held high after salvaging something out of the weekend.
"It's huge," said Thiessen. "We were pretty worried. We've lost some key fifth set matches in the past, so it feels really good to get this one."
Next up for the Wesmen after the break is playing host to Saskatchewan on Jan. 4-5. MacEwan, meanwhile, has a bye to kick off the second semester and will resume play on Jan. 11-12 at UBC.