The opening weekend of playoff volleyball provided much in the way of drama, a few key upsets, and punched a number of tickets to the CIS Championship. Not to mention, the weekend action vindicated the predictions of one snot-nosed pundit - who failed to misrepresent a single result. Just sayin'. What ensues is a breakdown of how and why those results came about, and what it all means for the Big Picture.
AUS Championship Series
UNB Varsity Reds vs. Dalhousie Tigers (UNB wins series 2-0)
Game 1: Friday, Feb. 18 - Dalhousie 2-3 UNB (26-24, 21-25, 22-25, 25-20, 15-12)
Game 2: Sunday, Feb. 20 - UNB 3-2 Dalhousie (18-25, 25-19, 25-22, 24-26, 15-12)
Analysis: Where else to start but the AUS, where the Varsity Reds clinched a momentous series win over their fierce rivals and frequent conquerors - the Dalhousie Tigers. The importance of the UNB's victory cannot be overstated, as the Reds' weekend success marks the first time in over two decades that a team other than the Tigers will emerge from the Atlantic conference to vie for CIS silverware. So how did they do it?
Well in many ways, the Reds' success over two legs came in very different areas in each match. In the series opener on home court on Friday night, UNB largely edged the contest through a superior net presence. AUS player of the year Jacob Kilpatrick was immense on the blocking front, with 10 combined blocks on the night. Outside star Tyler Veenhuis meanwhile, contributed on both sides of the ball, notching 16 kills and 9 combined blocks for a team-high total of 21.5 points. In Halifax on Sunday, neither player was dominant and yet UNB still managed a five-set victory.
Indeed, Dalhousie's veteran middle Max Burt entirely outdueled Kilpatrick in that position on Sunday, and Veenhuis was abysmal - hitting for a negative percentage on the afternoon. In the face of these harsh realities, one would assume that Dalhousie would win the match fairly handily. And yet, a combination of the Tigers' atrocious performance from the service line (19 service errors to the Reds' 7), and a star-making outing from Venezuelan outside Julio Fernandez saw UNB cross the historic finish line. Fernandez matched his more decorated opposite number Sander Ratsep throughout, and was particularly ferocious in the pipe. Dalhousie had no defensive solution for the Venezuelan's athleticism from that route, and were repeatedly burned on the play. It all added up to a narrow win for the Reds, who have a solid week to celebrate their historic accomplishment before serious game planning kicks in for their trip to Langley.
RSEQ Championship Series
#1 Laval Rouge et Or vs. Sherbrooke Vert et Or (Laval wins the series 2-0)
Game 1: Friday, Feb. 18 - Sherbrooke 0-3 Laval (25-19, 25-18, 25-20)
Game 2: Friday, Feb. 18 - Laval 3-0 Sherbrooke (25-21, 25-18, 25-16)
Analysis: I'm not entirely sure that much in the way of analysis is really necessary here. But for the sake of rambling and kicking the proverbial dead horse, why not? In a series that mattered for little other than padding Laval's bloated trophy case, Sherbrooke unsurprisingly found themselves punching above their weight class over the course of six mercifully brief sets. Karl de Grandpre was particularly efficient for the Rouge et Or over the weekend, converting 22 of 32 total hitting attempts while committing only two errors. If there is one concern for Laval as they prepare for the CIS Championships, it will be the relative ineffectiveness of Grandpre's outside partner Fredric Desbiens. The All-Canadian hitter saw the lion's share of reps for the Rouge et Or, but had considerable trouble cashing in, converting only 18 of 49 attempts while committing 11 errors. He struggled most on Friday, barely registering a positive hitting percentage in the series opening sweep. Desbiens will undoubtedly need to be better if Laval are to succeed at the national level. If teams can write him off and focus their attention on Grandpre, the Rouge et Or will find themselves on the outs rather quickly. As for Sherbrooke, the Vert et Or can look forward to being the bottom seed in Langley and the worst team present by a long margin. They should thoroughly enjoy being trounced by Alberta.
#9 (2) McMaster Marauders vs. (7) Laurier Golden Hawks
Saturday, Feb. 19: Laurier 0-3 McMaster (25-21, 25-12, 25-18)
Analysis: This match up played out exactly as one would expect, with the Marauders showing a level of killer instinct that they have often lacked this season. McMaster locked down Laurier's outside standout Cameron Wheelan from the get-go, forcing the visitors to spread the ball. Of course, spreading the ball is not something Laurier can do with any confidence, and the result was a very poor attacking performance from the Golden Hawks. No Laurier player entered double-digits in points, and the aforementioned Wheelan hit for a negative percentage in the loss. On the other side of the net, McMaster enjoyed a standout performance from right side Shayne Petrusma, who notched 15 points and converted an efficient 13 of 23 hitting attempts. Perhaps most impressively though, McMaster maintained composure for three full sets, never allowing their form to drop. Too often this season, the Marauders have fallen victim to lapses of concentration and seen inferior squads win sets off of them. With the Golden Hawks easily beaten, McMaster moves on to London and a rematch with their fierce rivals from Queen's.
#10 (3) Queen's Golden Gaels vs. (6) Waterloo Warriors
Saturday, Feb. 19: Waterloo 0-3 Queen's (25-23, 25-20, 25-17)
Analysis: Much like the Marauders, the Gaels cruised past an inferior opponent on home soil on Saturday night. Waterloo entered their knockout contest on a bad run of form, and that trend continued against a Queen's team that was not taking anything for granted. Despite a less than stellar performance from star left side Joren Zeeman, whose slightly erratic hitting led him to 12 kills and six errors on 27 attempts, the Gaels were never challenged by the visiting Warriors. In yet another sign of their trademark attacking balance - which has become a true mark of distinction for the top teams in the OUA - outside Bryan Fautley and middle Michael Amoroso picked up the slack left by Zeeman. The two had identical totals of 13 points and eclipsed hitting percentages of .350 in the victory. Now the real test awaits, as Queen's looks for their first win against the McMaster Marauders this season, a team that has seemingly owned the Gaels in recent years.
(4) Guelph Gryphons vs. (5) Windsor Lancers
Friday Feb. 18: Windsor 2-3 Guelph (25-21, 20-25, 20-25, 25-23, 15-7)
Analysis: The most even of the OUA quarterfinals went the distance on Friday night, with the Guelph Gryphons narrowly edging the Lancers on home court. To give you an idea of just how close the match was, Guelph scored only one more point (77) over the course of the five sets than their opponents (76). In fact, Windsor had the two highest scorers on the night in Kyle Williamson and Ryan Le, who contributed 24.5 and 21.5 points respectively. So how exactly did Guelph manage the victory? In fact, the score line itself tells you the most crucial part of the story. Namely, that Guelph managed a key shift of momentum late in the fourth set, and rode that wave to a convincing lead in the fifth. With teams as closely matched as the Lancers and Gryphons, the result of a match can come down to one or two critical points. On Friday, the hosts simply managed to convert those swing rallies. They will need to produce similarly clutch points this coming weekend, as they face a semifinal tilt against the Final Four host Western Mustangs.
#3 (2) Calgary Dinos vs. (7) UBC Thunderbirds (Calgary wins series 2-0)
Game 1: Thursday, Feb. 17 - UBC 0-3 Calgary (26-24, 25-16, 25-22)
Game 2: Friday, Feb. 18 - UBC 1-3 Calgary (25-19, 25-17, 29-31, 26-24)
Analysis: After the disappointment of the previous week, when they dropped consecutive matches to Alberta at home to lose control of the top spot in Canada West, Calgary reasserted themselves well against the Thunderbirds. Thursday's series opener was hardly the best match of volleyball you'll be treated to this postseason, but the Dinos won it handily by relying on their bread-and-butter. Namely, the Calgarians fed the majority of their hitting reps to Graham Vigrass and allowed the star senior to chew up UBC's piecemeal defence.
By comparison, the Thunderbirds found themselves sorely missing the outside presence of the conspicuously absent Demijan Savija. In Friday's follow up, UBC enjoyed far more success on the offensive side of the ball, thanks in large part to the insertion into the lineup of outside Robert Bennett. The fourth year hitter took full advantage of his opportunity, converting 16 of 30 attempts and notching a team-high 17.5 points on Friday. Calgary meanwhile, adopted somewhat of a confusing strategy in the second match, largely passing away from Vigrass in favour of right side Allen Meek. While the Dinos emerged victorious and Meek had no shortage of success in his enlarged role, one has to wonder whether Calgary can afford such experimentation in later rounds.
#4 (3) Trinity Western Spartans vs. #8 (6) Thompson Rivers Wolfpack (TWU wins series 2-0)
Game 1: Thursday, Feb. 17 - Thompson Rivers 0-3 Trinity Western (25-21, 27-25, 25-23)
Game 2: Friday, Feb. 18 - Thompson Rivers 0-3 Trinity Western (25-18, 25-21, 25-20)
Analysis: Did I expect Trinity Western to emerge from this series? Undoubtedly. Did I expect them to do so by winning six consecutive sets? Absolutely not. So how did the Spartans dominate the Wolfpack so convincingly?
The long and the short of it is that the Spartans dictated play through the middle, and they did so early and often. And impressively, they did so on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. In Thursday's series opener, it was Trinity Western's blocking prowess that guided them to victory, despite a strong performance from Wolfpack outside Kevin Tillie. Thompson Rivers' resident Frenchman put up a game high of 18 kills on 35 attempts, but it was the inefficiency of his compatriots that doomed the Wolfpack in the defeat. Right side Aleks Saddlemyer was particularly victimized, notching only five kills versus 12 errors in 23 attempts. Much of that could be directly contributed to the effectiveness of the Spartan block, as the home side put up a dominant total of 25 combined blocks over three sets.
By comparison, the Spartans' middle hitters put their offensive talents on display in the second match of the series on Friday. Rudy Verhoeff led all attackers with 18 kills on 29 attempts, while fellow middle Josh Doornenbal was even more efficient. He converted 15 of 21 attempts and led the Spartans with a sterling hitting percentage of .619. That sort of power down the center of the court was far too much for the overmatched Wolfpack to handle. The impressive series sweep should serve as a powerful statement to the rest of the CIS, who will have a huge task ahead of them as they attempt to deal with Trinity Western's potent middle attack.
#5 (4) Manitoba Bisons vs. #7 (5) Brandon Bobcats (Brandon wins the series 2-1)
Game 1: Friday, Feb. 18 - Brandon 2-3 Manitoba (25-18, 20-25, 25-23, 21-25, 15-9)
Game 2: Saturday, Feb. 19 - Brandon 3-2 Manitoba (25-21, 25-18, 22-25, 22-25, 15-13)
Game 3: Sunday, Feb. 20 - Brandon 3-1 Manitoba (27-25, 25-21, 21-25, 25-22)
Analysis: In what was billed as the tightest of the tilts on offer this past weekend, the Bisons and Bobcats put on a classic display over three exceptionally close matches. In the first, Manitoba withstood the expected power of Paul Sanderson and Kevin Miller and imposed much of their own attacking game on the Bobcats. While the hosts' blockers increasingly shut down Brandon's outside tandem - most notably Torontonian middle Joseph Brooks who had a combined total of 15 blocks in the win - Manitoba's own duo of Dane Pischke and Chris Voth were swinging with authority. By the time the fifth and deciding set rolled around, Sanderson looked nothing short of exhausted, and Brandon could do little to penetrate the Bisons' defensive scheme.
However, it was in the second match that things began to swing decidedly in the favour of the Bobcats. First and foremost, Pischke could not recapture his form of the previous night, and would prove to be an attacking liability for the remainder of the series. The visitors also benefited from a marked improvement in their defence, with libero-turned-outside Justin Pikel putting up a heroic total of 30 digs in the second match. Of course, in such a close contest, the two teams could not avoid a touch of controversy, and it was a disputed line call that gave the Bobcats their crucial late advantage in Saturday's fifth set.
Losing the second match seemed in many ways to deflate the Bisons, and they would fall considerably off form in the deciding match of the series. With the block enjoying prevalence, attackers on both sides of the net struggled, but it was Manitoba's key tandem that would suffer the most. Pischke posted a hitting percentage of zero on Sunday night, tossing in equal totals of 13 kills and 13 attacking errors, while his outside partner Voth was little better. The end result was a narrow but deserved loss for the Bisons, and a guaranteed place in the CIS Championship tournament for Brandon.