Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Replacing four starters from last season – including school career kills leader Cassidy Kinsella – no one quite knew what to expect from the MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball team this season.
Rebuilding, retooling or whatever you want to call it, it's fair to say the Griffins have something working here.
With a 3-1 victory over the UBC-Okanagan Heat on Saturday night (28-26, 21-25, 25-16, 25-22), they earned a weekend sweep over a team that qualified for the U SPORTS national championship last March.
Granted, the Heat have had some turnover, but the result certainly starts the season off on the right foot for a Griffins women's volleyball program still looking for its first post-season appearance since joining Canada West in 2014.
"What I really liked was we didn't break," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs. "Bent a few times … What else can I ask for? I'm really happy for these girls to finally get rewarded on all the hard work they've done."
The Heat will start 0-2, but it doesn't come as a surprise to head coach Steve Manuel. Injuries struck in an untimely manner right before the season began, forcing him to use outside hitter Natalie Livngston in a setter role the first weekend.
"Both of our setters got injured in the last week, so our starting right side set for most of the weekend and she's also our best passer," he explained. "But no excuses. MacEwan played way better than us. They outplayed us, outhustled us and player for player they were better than us all weekend. That's the way it goes in this league."
On Saturday, Sydney Grills led the Heat with 14 kills, while Aidan Lea had 10, plus four blocks. Claudia Corneil had 13 digs.
For the Griffins, Janna Ogle led the way with 12 kills and six digs, while Haley Gilfillan had six service aces, Kylie Schubert had 29 assists and Hailey Cornelis chipped in nine kills and six blocks.
"We did it every way," said Briggs. "There were a bunch of sets over this weekend where we were in total control. Our serving was really good. Gilf put them in trouble constantly.
"In the end, both teams struggled at times with serve and pass, but I thought we were more consistent over the weekend and that was the difference."
So often in recent seasons, the Griffins have played teams close only to lose clutch points down the stretch and surrender defeat. But Saturday's effort epitomized why the new-look Griffins might be different; in both Sets 1 and 4, they trailed 20-16 only to claw back and take both of them.
In the opening set, both teams had chances to end it, before a service ace from Carly Weber and a long attack by the Heat ended it in the home team's favour.
UBCO wouldn't be denied down the stretch in the second set, though. Tight all the way through, the Heat pulled away to a familiar 20-16 lead out of the technical timeout and ended it on their first set point opportunity off a service ace from Aidan Lea.
The third set, however, was all MacEwan as UBCO struggled passing the ball and the Griffins didn't let up in building a dominant 22-11 lead. Cornelis' tip ended it.
In the fourth set, UBCO again cruised to a big lead out of the technical timeout as 6-foot-3 rookie outside Sydney Grills caught fire with some big kills. But the Griffins eventually shut her attack down, blocking her twice when the points mattered the most and ended it off a service run by Shubert, an Ogle tip and a Gilfillan block.
"It was nice to execute when we needed to," said Briggs. "Kylie was upset. She had missed her serve the last time through and then comes in clutch and makes three-four good serves in a row there."
The Heat (0-2) will regroup and attempt to get healthy as they head back to Kelowna for their home opener Oct. 26 vs. Trinity Western. Beyond the injuries, they also have several newcomers adjusting to the Canada West level.
"We have a completely new team," said Manuel. "We've graduated 12 starters in the last three years. We're completely new. We started three rookies here this weekend and we started two other players completely out of position because of the setter injury.
"We knew we were going to have some tough matches against some good teams like MacEwan that are veteran and play well together. We'll just have to build from here."
MacEwan (2-0) next travels to meet Manitoba (0-2) in Winnipeg on Oct. 27-28.