Aneesa Heatherington / UBC Thunderbirds
VANCOUVER - The UBC Thunderbirds (9-11) won their seventh match of 2019 for a statement regular season home court finale at War Memorial Gym. The 3-1 (19-25, 25-21, 25-20, 25-15) win over the Winnipeg Wesmen (7-13) was imperative for UBC's playoff hopes, but was even more meaningful on a night of recognition for graduating seniors Joel Regehr and Zeid Hamadeh.
"It was pretty special," said Regehr. "We had a good crowd of people I've known throughout the years come out and support us as we fought our way to a victory. I think we've had a pretty transformative second half of the season - playing together as a team and refining our offence. I'm excited for where we can go in the playoffs."
Regehr has spent six years with the Thunderbird volleyball program and was instrumental in the 2018 U Sports national championship title a season ago.
"He was incredible," admitted UBC head coach Mike Hawkins, following what could be Regehr's last match at War Memorial Gym. "It maybe doesn't show up on the stat sheet, he didn't attack particularly well, but he did everything else. He served really well, blocked well, his digs...he was exceptional."
The Courtney, B.C. product finished with two blocks, four digs, an assist and an ace in the crucial victory. Rookie Michael Dowhaniuk had a match-high 22 kills with nine digs, Danny Aspenlieder racked up 18 kills with seven digs, and Matt Neaves added 11 kills with seven digs. Setter Ben Hooker totalled 46 assists and two aces with nine digs and three kills, and Jordan Deshane put up six total blocks with seven kills and an ace.
Daniel Thiessen, Ethan Duncan and Adrian Dyck each recorded 10 kills for the Wesmen and Keegan Teetaert led Winnipeg with three solo blocks.
Regehr started the match with a big block in a tightly contested opening set that saw the Wesmen hold a narrow 16-14 edge at the technical timeout. Winnipeg hit at a .257 clip, compared to UBC's .128 in the first set, and earned a set point on a backrow violation by the 'Birds at 24-17. The T-Birds stayed alive on a Winnipeg error and an Aspenlieder ace, but Duncan closed it out with a kill at 25-19.
Deshane came up with back-to-back blocks and recorded his third block of the set to give UBC a 7-6 lead in the second. Duncan tied it up at 11-11 on a tip before Hooker came up with his own crafty tip to retake the lead. Hooker made it 18-16 on another disguised set and Dowhaniuk smacked a pair of kills off the Winnipeg block for a set point at 24-20. Deshane converted UBC's second set point with his fourth kill for a 25-21 win.
Neaves unloaded on a kill to put the 'Birds up 4-3 in an equally hard-fought third set and Dowhaniuk drew the home team even at 8-8. The two teams went shot-for-shot before a string of Wesmen errors gave UBC a 19-16 advantage. The Thunderbirds maintained their three-point cushion to a 22-19 lead before Neaves earned the T-Birds a set point and Aspenlieder closed it out at 25-20.
Regehr got the 'Birds rolling with another service run to start the fourth set and Hooker continued the streak of strong serves with an ace at 7-2 to force a Winnipeg timeout. The Wesmen clawed to within two at 8-6 before tying it up at 9-9 on a Duncan kill. Regehr stood tall for a block to restore the UBC lead to 14-11 before Hooker played hitter with a huge kill assisted by Dowhaniuk. Zec Johnson entered the game to serve at 18-14 and catalyzed a 5-0 run on an impressive serving display to put the 'Birds in position for victory. A Winnipeg attack sailed long for a T-Bird set point at 24-15 that ended on an unfortunate net violation by the Wesmen.
UBC now is four points ahead of the Wesmen for the eighth and final playoff berth with two matches remaining in the regular season.
"It's big for us," said Hawkins. "It puts us in a good spot for the postseason and we battled back after a tough first set. I thought Winnipeg came out and received really well and pushed us around a bit. We found ourselves in the last three sets and played our style. There's an understanding now of what we're capable of. With such a new group, new players, new coaching staff and a new style of play, it took a while for everyone to settle in and trust the system. Now we'll see where it takes us."
The Thunderbirds will hit the road next Friday and Saturday to take on the seventh-place Calgary Dinos (10-10) to cap off the regular season schedule with a chance to overtake the Dinos in the Canada West standings. With their season on the line, Winnipeg is back at home next weekend to host the fourth-place Alberta Golden Bears (15-5).
PHOTO: Rich Lam / UBC Thunderbirds