Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – A point away from taking a commanding 2-0 lead, the MacEwan Griffins conceded a confounding 4-0 run, lost the set and found themselves wandering in a foggy netherworld of compounding mistakes as the visiting Mount Royal University Cougars cruised unfettered the rest of the way to a 3-1 Canada West women's volleyball victory on Friday night.
It was an astounding and definitive momentum shift for a result that makes the Canada West playoff picture even more interesting. After the 20-25, 26-24, 25-17, 25-17 win, the Cougars pull to 8-9, while dropping the Griffins to 8-7 and into their pack of five teams battling for four post-season spots.
"It's really disappointing because most of that game was from the shoulders up," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs. "I'm a little disappointed in that part, but they're fighting for their lives. Now they're right with us and here we go. This should be an exciting time of the year, not a pressure time of the year."
While the mental pressure certainly sunk the Griffins on Friday night, physically, it was the play of MRU's outside hitters that proved to be the difference in the match.
Cassidy Kitchen was nearly unstoppable in leading the Cougars with 21 kills, four service aces and 22 digs (all game highs). From the other side, the Griffins had no answer for Chantel Park, who blasted 16 kills and added nine digs.
"By far probably the best I've seen those two work as a combo to get the job done for us tonight," said Cougars head coach Sandra Lamb, also quick to praise setter Quinn Pelland for her 48-assist night that kept the Griffins off balance.
"Our passing was stable tonight. We've kind of struggled on that end. Then Quinn being able to deliver the ball – they just had really good vision tonight and were able to put the ball away."
MacEwan was led by Haley Gilfillan, who dominated in the middle with 11 kills and seven blocks. McKenna Stevenson added nine kills and seven blocks.
Early on, the Griffins were in control of the match, marching to a 9-3 lead off the opening whistle. Kitchen got rolling for MRU to cut into the advantage, but some strong serving from Hailey Cornelis brought MacEwan into the technical timeout up 16-10. The Cougars clawed back behind some creative off-speed shot-making, but MacEwan refused to relinquish the lead, ending it when Gilfillan stuffed Nicky Zalasky.
MRU got their feet under them quickly in the second set, getting MacEwan out of system for a 9-4 lead, but a 7-0 run mid-set put the Griffins within striking distance of going up 2-0 in the match. When Kylie Schubert sent a sneaky dump shot to the floor for a 24-22 advantage, it seemed only a matter of time. Somehow, though, the Cougars rallied to steal it as Cornelis' kill went long, Anna Carlson's serve painted the back line for an ace and Kitchen finished it off with back-to-back floor benders.
"We should have been up 2-0 and then it's a totally different match," said Briggs. "We gave that game away at the end by bad decisions and we talked about it. We can't go back and change it, but that just changed the whole flow. You're up 2-0 and then you're in the driver's seat. We made believers out of them and then their outsides got going.
"We still dominated in the middle. We still blocked very, very well. But when we block like that, we better be digging around that block and I thought we didn't dig well enough. I thought they played much better defence. They had three blocks. That means they dug an awful lot of balls."
MRU dug a total of 82 of them to be exact. As they rode a wave of momentum to an 11-4 start in the third set, any time MacEwan saw a faint opening to wrest it back, they just couldn't get the ball on the floor. Set 3 ended on another Kitchen kill.
"It was really nice to see," said Lamb of her team's defence. "I can't complain about any moment of our game tonight. The defence was there, we were touching a lot of balls at the net.
"We really had to make MacEwan think about where they were putting the ball with tips and rolls and things like that. We executed on both sides of the ball tonight."
Another slow start in the fourth set for MacEwan had them trailing 9-3 early and they fought it the rest of the way as the Cougars' outsides had their way.
"They swing at the ball," said Briggs. "That's our biggest weakness right now. We had no answer from the outside. Our outsides under-performed, and we made really bad decisions."
The teams will meet again in the rematch on Saturday (5 p.m., Canada West TV).