Aneesa Heatherington, UBC Thunderbirds (with files from Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Griffins)
VANCOUVER – The UBC Thunderbirds rallied from a marathon third set loss to defeat the MacEwan Griffins 3-1 (25-17, 25-18, 35-37, 25-16) Saturday night and sweep their first series of the season at War Memorial Gym. With the victory, the 'Birds (4-10) leapfrog the Griffins (3-11) in the Canada West standings and are within striking distance of the playoffs with four crucial weeks remaining down the stretch of the regular season.
"It was important for us as a young group to rebound from a disappointing third set," said UBC head coach Mike Hawkins. "I thought we had a pretty comfortable lead but you could tell the focus maybe slipped, maybe guys were already thinking past the present moment. It was important for us to bounce back and I thought we did a good job of dictating the pace in that fourth set. They had a few kills but I think we were pretty confident we could right the ship."
A key factor in the memorable victory were standout performances from three Thunderbird rookies. Michael Dowhaniuk put up a career-high 28 kills and a .643 hitting percentage to go with three aces, Matt Neaves had a career-high seven blocks and added 14 kills with nine digs, and James Takken made his return to Canada West action with 11 kills and five digs in three sets.
The Griffins lost one of their main offensive threats, Kai Hesthammer, in the second set, but veteran middle blocker Max Vriend came up big with 14 kills and three aces, adding three solo blocks. Jordan Peters was also clutch in the seesaw third set, finishing with nine kills and an ace.
Knotted up at 12 points apiece in the opening frame, Dowhaniuk put the 'Birds up on one of his eight kills in the set. UBC went on to hit a stellar .565 percentage and fired on all cylinders to take the first, 25-17.
In the second set, Joel Regehr fired a kill and one of five aces on the night before Dowhaniuk crushed an ace of his own for an 8-2 cushion, but MacEwan stormed back to tie it at 8-8. Some excellent work at the net – Noah Johnson had three block assists in the 6-0 run – helped the visitors level the score. At 10-9 UBC, Hesthammer landed awkwardly on his ankle and was forced to leave the match with an injury. The Thunderbirds rolled to 25-18 set victory after that.
UBC took control of the third set early and attacked with ease for a seven-point lead, but MacEwan capitalized on a run of T-Bird errors to narrow the deficit to one at 17-16. Peters completed the Griffin comeback with back-to-back kills to tie it at 18-18. A Jordan Deshane block sparked the 'Birds back into action and Takken earned UBC their first match point at 24-22. The Griffins stayed alive after a pair of T-Bird errors evened it up at 24-24 and Vriend served up an ace for their own set point. Takken extended the match on another kill, and the two teams traded errors to make it 26-26. War Memorial Gym was then witness to a rollercoaster shot-for-shot contest that continued to all the way to 35-35 when a Peters kill gave the Griffins their eighth set point, Vriend then ended the marathon with a kill off the UBC block.
To no surprise, little separated the two teams to start the fourth, and the Canada West rivals were tied at 9-9. The Thunderbirds then rode a Regehr serving streak for a 5-0 run to widen the gap and cruised to a 25-16 victory.
"We know what we need to do this second semester and we keep talking about making that snowball roll down the hill and get bigger and bigger," said Hawkins. "It needed to start this weekend, it's going to continue through training this week, and into UBCO next weekend. We can't look ahead at what could be and what other teams are doing, we need to be very present with our focus."
As long as the third set between MacEwan and UBC went on Saturday night – lasting through 72 points – it's still not close to the Canada West record.
That distinction goes to Regina's now-shuttered men's volleyball program, which knocked off Brandon 42-40 in a set in 2011.
"I really liked our attention to detail," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "That was probably the best we looked all weekend as far as really just following the system. We were pretty disciplined blocking and we did a good job defending. We made some serves. That gave us an opportunity to stay in that set.
"By the nature of it, you're going to be pretty engaged. The challenge for us is can we be that engaged in a match at 0-0. Can we start a match that focused on the details and not wait to do it in extra time?"
The next opportunity for the Griffins to take the court will be next weekend, when the Mt. Royal Cougars visit the David Atkinson Gym for a Friday-Saturday doubleheader.
The Thunderbirds are right back on home court to host the winless UBC Okanagan Heat on Friday at 7:30 p.m. PT and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. PT.
PHOTO: Rich Lam/UBC Thunderbirds