Over the course of this weekend, the conference playoffs wrapped up for the country's university volleyballers. We recap the OUA and Canada West Final Four tournaments and look ahead to the upcoming CIS Championship in Langley, BC.
OUA Final Four at Western
Friday, Feb. 25 - Semifinal: McMaster 3-1 Queen's (25-14, 25-19, 23-25, 25-23)
Friday, Feb. 25 - Semifinal: Guelph 1-3 Western (25-15, 28-26, 21-25, 25-15)
Saturday, Feb. 27 - Final: McMaster 3-1 Western (25-17, 25-23, 18-25, 25-22)
How it Happened: Interestingly, as the scores can tell even the most casual reader, all three matches in the OUA tournament this past weekend played out in nearly the same fashion. The eventual winners handily took the opening sets, won the second by a much tighter margin, dropped the third, and reestablished their dominance in the fourth. Odd coincidence? Maybe not.
What it tells you is not that the teams covertly met and agreed that four sets would be the norm, but rather that each match played out according to powerful and palpable momentum shifts. In each case, one team held the lion's share of the energy and impetus, and it showed on the score sheet.
In the opening match of the weekend, the Marauders continued their intriguing domination of the Queen's Golden Gaels. Despite the supposed vulnerability of McMaster at the setting position, with OUA All-Rookie Austin Campion-Smith holding the reigns, it was the Kingston outfit that faced the greater crisis with the loss of their starter Daniel Rosenbaum to injury. Whether it was Rosenbaum's absence or the presence of their rivals across the net, Queen's looked exceptionally tense and tentative to begin the match. Despite some improvement in the third, they would not prove able to maintain a high level of play, and their All-Star starters would almost unanimously struggle. First-Team middle Michael Amoroso was almost entirely shut down by the opposing central combination of Tyler Santoni and Michael Sjonnesen, notching only 9 kills on 22 attempts, with six errors. Joren Zeeman, the left side with National B Team credibility was similarly ineffective, tallying a game-high 24 points but hitting for a paltry percentage of .151.
By comparison, McMaster enjoyed a standout performance from their own left side Kevin Stevens. The Marauder sophomore found great success by doing what he does best: using an assortment of shots and angles to carve out points. As a fairly small outside, Stevens relies on his off-speed savvy to produce kills where larger and more powerful men can rely on brute force alone. His deep bag of tricks helped the Winnipeg native to score a team-high of 16 kills of grab player of the game honours for the Marauders in their semi-final win.
With McMaster through to the final, Guelph and Western played to determine their opponent, and enjoyed a very similar match to that which had preceded them. Western grabbed the opening set by a ten-point margin and eked out the second in extra points, eventually winning in four after a Guelph resurgence. The key for Western was the superior efficiency of its hitters, who continued to swing with authority in the face of a stout defensive effort from the Gryphs. Guelph tallied an incredible total of 90 digs over the four sets played, but could not weather the power of Western's outside stars Matt Poulin and Reid Halpenny. Poulin was particularly immense, wracking up 20 kills on 41 attempts and totalling 21.5 points.
In the final, McMaster managed almost an identical result against the host Mustangs as they had the previous night against the Gaels. With a boisterous traveling crowd behind them, the Marauders stormed out to an early lead and outlasted Western in a very close fourth set that could have broken in either direction. What truly tipped the scales in the visitors' favour was their superior defence, with the Marauders out-blocking and out-digging the Mustangs on the night. The stalwart defence translated into a clear McMaster advantage in longer rallies, and seemingly frustrated Western's decorated hitting corps. And unlike the Gryphons before them, the Marauders possessed an attacking bite that rewarded their defensive prowess. First-year right side Jori Mantha was pivotal on the defensive side of the ball, notching 22 digs on the night.
What it Means: What it all means is that McMaster claims the final golden ticket to Langley, BC and the opportunity to represent Ontario amongst the best volleyball squads this country has to offer. A sixth seed means that McMaster will meet the third-ranked Brandon Bobcats in the quarterfinals.
Canada West Final Four at Alberta
Friday, Feb. 25 - Semifinal: Brandon 3-2 Alberta (25-27, 25-20, 17-25, 28-26, 15-12)
Friday, Feb. 25 - Semifinal: Trinity Western 2-3 Calgary (25-27, 25-17, 25-21, 19-25, 15-11)
Saturday, Feb. 26 - Bronze Medal: Trinity Western 3-1 Alberta (21-25, 25-19, 25-18, 25-15)
Saturday, Feb. 26 - Final: Brandon 2-3 Calgary (25-19, 25-21, 25-27, 23-25, 16-14)
How it Happened: What an odd weekend in Canada West. Having not seen any of the match play, what with bustling back and forth between Hamilton and London for the OUA festivities, I can only speculate on what brought about the results on offer. First and foremost, one has to wonder at the polar fortunes of Alberta and Brandon, who seemed to be on two very different planes of existence for much of this season.
Had I actually written a preview of this past weekend, I would have picked the Golden Bears to beat the Bobcats without too much trouble. Likely in four close but never doubtful sets. Instead, Brandon turns around and one-ups the hosts in five sets. What accounts for this? I think there's a combination of a few factors at play.
First, Brandon is undoubtedly gaining steam as the year winds down, and their quarterfinal series win over the Bisons seems to have given them a renewed sense of confidence. Paul Sanderson is a known quantity, as the single most prolific hitter in the country. But what is most encouraging for the Bobcats is the effectiveness of Kevin Miller on the opposite wing. With the two sharing passing distribution evenly in recent weeks, it is the play of Miller that seems to be the most telling indicator of whether Brandon wins or loses. When he hits above .200 or so, the Bobcats win. When he doesn't, they lose. Case in point: in Friday night's victory over the Golden Bears, Miller put up 24.5 points on 23 of 48 hitting with 11 errors, for a percentage of .250. By comparison, in Saturday's five set defeat to Calgary Miller was 22 of 58 with 12 errors. His percentage? .172.
On the other side of the net, Alberta was alarmingly flat in both of its matches, begging the question of what exactly caused the conference leaders to cool off so suddenly. Are they simply overrated? Or was the bye week a damper on their preparations? At this point, it hardly matters. Because of their struggles, the Golden Bears now face the unenviable task of playing Trinity Western on their home floor at the National Championships. And that match becomes even less appetizing after the relatively sound beating the Spartans handed Alberta in the bronze medal match.
What about Calgary, the team I lauded for much of the season as the best in Canada? Well, it's hard to tell what this past weekend had to say in their case. They won a championship and grabbed the premier seed in the CIS Championships as a result. If nothing else, that guarantees them a virtual free pass in the quarterfinal round against a game but undoubtedly overmatched Sherbrooke team.
One thing that continues to puzzle me from the Dinos is the level to which they are distributing the ball at this stage. Typically, that would be a source of praise, but with a player of the calibre of Graham Vigrass on the floor, I'm not sure it is. In Friday's win over Trinity Western, Vigrass was eclipsed in repetitions by Allen Meek, who did admirably in his leading role. However, I'm still strongly of the belief that if the Dinos are to repeat their success of a year ago, the road will lead squarely through Vigrass.
What it Means: Very little to be honest. With all four teams already having qualified, the results of the weekend served only to shake up seedings at the Championship tournament. Their struggles see Alberta drop to the fifth seed, and Brandon rise to number three. Calgary's victory propels them into top spot.
Seedings and First Round Match Ups at the CIS Championships:
Friday, Mar. 4th -
(7) UNB v. (2) Laval - 1:oo p.m. PST
(6) McMaster v. (3) Brandon - 3:00 p.m. PST
(5) Alberta v. (4) Trinity Western - 6:00 p.m. PST
(8) Sherbrooke v. (1) Calgary - 8:00 p.m. PST