Volleyball: Men's championships preview

The CIS men’s volleyball championships kick off Friday in Langley, B.C., and I’ll be on-hand to cover them throughout the weekend. To get you set for the tournament, we have a breakdown of each opening match Friday, with thoughts on each team from myself and Fraser Caldwell and Rob’s predicted chances each team has of winning the tournament. All games will be streamed on SSN Canada, and they’ll all be live-blogged here as well. Seeds and game times are also listed below.

(7) UNB v. (2) Laval (1 p.m. Pacific Friday):

Rob’s tournament odds: Laval: 44.6 % (his system likes that the winner of this game will face the winner of the 3-6 matchup between Brandon and McMaster, two teams the stats don’t like, so this is the highest percentage for any team), UNB: 1.9 %

Fraser’s analysis: This is a much closer match than most would think. Despite losing both of their previous two matches against the Rouge et Or in interlock play this season, the second of those gives one a good idea of what to expect on Friday. In fact, with influential outside Julio Fernandez playing only a single set in that contest, Laval in many ways dodged a bullet back in November.

Since that time, the Varsity Reds have gone on a tear, and finally unseated the Dalhousie Tigers as kings of the East Coast a few weeks ago. They have been enjoying consistent offensive output from Fernandez and fellow outside Tyler Veenhuis, and can rely on the elite blocking presence of AUS player of the year and First Team All-Canadian Jacob Kilpatrick.

Give the defensive edge to UNB, and the offensive one to Laval – who will lean heavily on their towers of power on the outside, Frederic Desbiens and Karl de Grandpre. This one will be exceptionally tight – almost certainly a drawn out five-setter.

Fraser’s prediction: I’ve waffled on this one several times, but I’ll give the slightest of edges to Laval on the basis of experience on the national stage. Laval in five.

Andrew’s thoughts: I’m not sure this is going to be as close as Fraser expects. Yes, UNB did very well to knock off Dalhousie in the AUS finals, becoming the first new AUS champion in 25 years in the process, but they may encounter the same pitfall the Tigers frequently have on the national stage; namely, a lack of experience against quality competition. Laval doesn’t have to play in Canada West, so they aren’t often in week-in/week-out dogfights either, but their nationals experience will undoubtedly help.

Beyond that, I like Laval far more from a personnel standpoint. de Grandpre has been one of the most consistent players in CIS over the past several years, and our statistics reflect that; he topped the 2009-10 Bucholtz Rankings and finished second this season. Desbiens dropped to 40th this year, but was ninth overall last season and turned in a very impressive showing at the nationals. The Rouge et Or also have further depth with Frederic Mondou at outside hitter, a solid middle in Micael Girard and a reliable setter in Justin Boudreau. Kilpatrick and Veenhuis certainly are impressive as well, but I think Laval’s depth gives them the edge.

Andrew’s prediction: The Varsity Reds might make this a contest, but I don’t think they’ll be able to hang with the Rouge et Or for the long run. Laval in four.

(6) McMaster v. (3) Brandon (3 p.m. Pacific Friday)

Rob’s tournament odds: McMaster: 3.7%, Brandon: 1.1%

Fraser’s analysis: Here is another match that I believe will be much tighter than many pundits, especially those in the West, would think. We have in many senses two surprise packages in the Marauders and Bobcats, both of whom turned some heads in reaching this stage. Before I break this one down, I will issue the disclaimer that I am a biased observer where the maroon and grey are concerned. Whether that heavily tints my analysis is up to you to decide.

For the Marauders’ part, a team missing a few key pieces and relying on untested players in vital positions appears to be peaking at just the right time. Despite the absence of veteran All-Canadian Jeremy Groenveld for the bulk of the season due to a litany of injuries, and the presence of rookie Austin Campion-Smith at setter, McMaster has overcome the odds and many a nay-sayer to become the OUA champions for the third time in the past four seasons.

Tyler Santoni has been immense in the middle of the court, and his fellow veteran Josh Lichty has provided leadership and stability on defence that the Marauders lacked at the outset of their OUA campaign. Despite its obvious vulnerabilities, teams take McMaster lightly at their own peril. Just ask the Western Mustangs.

Meanwhile, Brandon has amassed a recent history of impressive results that suggest that they too are peaking at the business end of the schedule. The Bobcats have developed a legitimate alternative to Paul Sanderson on the outside in the form of Kevin Miller, and their new found distribution of the ball is causing headaches for opponents.

This is very much a match up of offensive polar opposites. McMaster’s strength lies in the center of the court, in the form of Santoni and fellow middle Michael Sjonnesen, while Brandon will live on the wings and ride the talents of their outside superhero Sanderson. Whichever team can impose their strategy will find themselves in the semifinals.

Fraser’s prediction: I think McMaster is more capable of shutting down the outside threat than Brandon is of muting Santoni and the middle game. Marauders in five.

Andrew’s thoughts: I could see this one being quite close. As Fraser pointed out above, both teams really rounded into form down the stretch, so I’m expecting them to put on a show for us Friday afternoon. The one player I’m really looking forward to watching in person is Sanderson, who was named the top CIS player in 2010 by the coaches and in 2011 by our system. I think he’s really improved his decision-making this year; he topped all players in our kills/errors component, which suggests that he’s making less costly mistakes. A lot of the top outside hitters struggle in that category, as they see so many balls that the defence often keys on them, forcing them into low-percentage shots. Sanderson not only racks up kills, but he does so efficiently. He also was the country’s most feared server this year, according to our standings.

Brandon isn’t just about Sanderson these days, though. Miller gives them another outside threat, and middle Jonathan Sloane has quietly been very effective. It’s going to be interesting to see what the Bobcats try to do to counter Santoni and Sjonnesen in the middle, but I think they’ll be able to pull it off. McMaster has the talent to compete with Brandon, and they’ve got a good chance to hang with them, but in the end, I like Brandon here. I wrote a while back that the Bobcats could be a team to watch in the nationals, and I think they might get off to a good start against McMaster.

Andrew’s prediction: Brandon in five. I don’t see the Marauders going down easily, but Sanderson may be too much for them to handle.

(5) Alberta v. (4) Trinity Western (6 p.m. Pacific Friday)

Rob’s tournament odds: Trinity Western: 22.4 per cent, Alberta: 7.4 per cent

Fraser’s analysis: After a spectacular crash and burn routine in the Canada West Final Four in their own gym, Alberta now faces a brutally tough match up against the host Spartans. For my money, Alberta could not have drawn a worse match than this one.

These two teams played one another last weekend in the bronze medal match of the Canada West Championship tournament, and the Spartans dismissed the host Golden Bears with surprising ease. After dropping the opening game, Trinity Western would clinch the following three sets without dropping more than 19 points in any one of them.

The key was the efficiency of middle star Rudy Verhoeff and his partner Josh Doornenbal, and the contrasting struggles of Alberta’s typical hitting duo of Spencer Leiske and Jay Olmstead. The relative ease with which Trinity Western imposed its suffocating middle game on the Golden Bears was very surprising, and doesn’t bode well for the Albertans this weekend.

If the Spartans could manage such a match in Alberta, they should only find it easier on home court.

Fraser’s prediction: Trinity Western should take full advantage of the home cooking and book their place in the semifinals. Spartans in four.

Andrew’s thoughts: This sets up as a very tough draw for Alberta. The Golden Bears are a talented team, as their regular season run shows, but I expect the host partisans to be out in force for Trinity Western. The thing that stands out to me about this matchup is the depth on both sides; Trinity has two players in our top 10 according to the rankings (#7 Verhoeff and #9 Lucas Van Berkel) and three more inside the top 50, while Alberta has no one in the top 10, but four players in the top 50. Both teams have plenty of options on every set, so it may come down to which team makes the better setting and defending decisions.

That’s not going to be easy for Alberta in a noisy, hostile and unfamiliar environment. Making good decisions has long been a staple of Trinity’s game, though; the Spartans are very deep, and they’re quite adept on deceptive plays like tips and backcourt attacks. Expect setter Ben Ball to have a substantial impact on this one. I think he and the rest of the Spartans will be able to do enough to get the Golden Bears off their game, and that should end well for TWU.

Andrew’s prediction: Trinity Western in four

(8) Sherbrooke v. (1) Calgary (8 p.m. Pacific Friday)

Rob’s tournament odds: Calgary: 18.6%, Sherbrooke 0.2%

Fraser’s analysis: Does this match really warrant analysis? Sigh.

The final match of Friday night should also be its most lopsided. That is unless the Dinos feel obliged to engage in charity.

I see absolutely no area in which Sherbrooke equals the Calgary outfit in skill, efficiency, or depth. The Vert et Or’s premier player, Pierre-Marc Lussier, is easily outmatched by the Dinos Graham Vigrass, who was awarded CIS player of the year last night.

Sherbrooke’s only legitimate hope is that Calgary forgets to feed Vigrass the ball, and that the Dinos’ outside options Allen Meek and Curtis James forget the mechanics of a hitting motion.

Otherwise, this is a walkover in the making.

Fraser’s prediction: Calgary in three sweat-free sets.

Andrew’s thoughts: I can’t argue with much of that. Calgary’s had a very impressive season, going 27-7 against CIS competition and capping that off with a run to the Canada West title. Vigrass is obviously the centrepiece of that lineup, but the Dinos have other notable options, including James, Meek and David Egan. Meanwhile, the Vert et Or went just 9-8 during the regular season and didn’t crack the national top 10 rankings once. They didn’t even pick up a single conference award, although Lussier and Maxime Claessens-Rivet were named to the all-Quebec first team. Upsets do happen, but I don’t think one’s likely here.

Andrew’s prediction: Dinos in three. Vigrass and company will be just too much for Sherbrooke.

Remember to check back here all weekend for tournament live blogs and other coverage!
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