Mid-February means crunch time for the CIS' men's volleyball squads, and we recap the penultimate week of action and reintroduce the Swing of the Week.
Swing of the Week
This week's most dramatic turn of fortune comes to us by way of the UBCO Heat, who dodged five match points in the fifth and deciding set of their Saturday match up with the Saskatchewan Huskies to keep their playoff hopes alive. After being swept by the Huskies the night before, the Heat trailed 14-11 in the fifth before launching what must go down as the comeback of the season.
Facing three match points at 14-11 down, UBCO had only a 6.3% chance of winning the match. Three successful rallies later, the Heat had leveled the score and with it, their probability of success. And then outside hitter Nate Speijer tossed in a hitting error - instantly gifting the Huskies another match point and dropping his team's chances of winning to only 25%.
But it would be the veteran Speijer who would take the match into his own hands in the dying stages, killing to level proceedings once again at 16-all. He would move to the service line, and after fellow outside Riley MacFarland notched a kill of his own, the fourth-year standout brought the match to an unlikely conclusion with a resounding ace.
With the win, the Heat remain in playoff contention (although they will need consecutive wins against the TRU WolfPack to overcome seventh-placed Winnipeg). More impressively for our purposes however, UBCO managed to overcome a win-probability of only 6.3% to seal a victory in the space of nine points.
One You Shouldn't Have Missed
#5 UBC Thunderbirds (0) vs. #8 Brandon Bobcats (3)
This Saturday night rematch takes my pick ahead of Queen's upset sweep over Western from the same day. Quite simply, I don't put a ton of stock in the Mustangs' effort in a game that didn't matter to them in the slightest. Is it bad form to let one's foot off the gas just before the playoffs? Definitely. But Queen's was gunning for the third seed while Western already had top spot in the bag. I'll take the competitive match from Vancouver.
UBC and Brandon came into this past weekend's series with identical records, and they would leave in the exact same situation (10-8). After the Thunderbirds took the first match of the weekend in four sets on Friday, the Bobcats knuckled down and eked out a razor-close decision in straight sets on Saturday. The highlight: a 62-point second set edged by the Manitoban visitors. Rather than fade away after the disappointment of losing such a close game, the Thunderbirds pushed the Bobcats to the brink yet again in the third, before the visitors won it 25-23 and secured the sweep.
How the Top Teams Fared
#1 Trinity Western Spartans (17-1) and #7 Calgary Dinos (9-9)
A week after seeing their bid for a perfect season end in Winnipeg, the Spartans enjoyed a return to their scary-good form in Calgary. Trinity Western handled the Dinos with a minimum of fuss, dropping only a single set over the course of two weekend wins. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Spartans' play was their success on the block, where the visitors terrorized Calgary's hitters early and often. In Friday's sweep, the Spartans racked up 30 total blocks (26 assists, 4 solo) with leading scorer Dan Jansen van Doorn notching ten block assists of his own.
In the Saturday rematch, it was Rudy Verhoeff who led the way for the Spartans, scoring a game-high 23 points on 20 of 34 hitting (.384). Graham Vigrass' increased reps and relative effectiveness in the four-set loss will be a promising sign for Dino fans. he handled a team-high 35 attempts and converted 18 of them.
#2 Manitoba Bisons (16-2) and #10 Winnipeg Wesmen (7-13)
The Bisons remain firmly entrenched in second spot in the Canada West standings after scoring consecutive wins against their crosstown rival Wesmen in a home-and-home series. A rare Wednesday night contest saw the Bisons travel down the block to the Duckworth Centre, where both squads struggled to find offensive efficiency. With neither of the Bisons' usual suspects on the outside eclipsing an average of .150 on the day (Dane Pischke was .132 while Chris Voth was .114), the match was largely decided by errors. Manitoba gave away 15 free points on the attack to Winnipeg's 24, and therein lies your margin of victory.
The second match of the series came at the IGAC, and saw Manitoba's big guns return to form on Saturday night. Voth racked up 21 points and converted 17 of 43 attacks while Pischke notched 18 points on 16 of 37. Order restored, and Manitoba continues to breeze toward the playoffs, while the Wesmen are in danger of missing the postseason altogether.
#3 Laval Rouge et Or (17-0)
To absolutely no one's surprise, the Rouge et Or polished off yet another perfect conference season this past weekend, with suitably routine wins over Sherbrooke and Montreal. In Friday's road contest against the Vert et Or, Laval actually dropped a set (gasp!) - but that one blemish makes the match seem deceptively competitive. The other three sets finished 25-11, 25-14, and 25-13 for the Rouge et Or. Outside maestro Karl de Grandpre was his usual ball-smiting self, with 24.5 points on 22 of 40 hitting with 3 errors (.475). Middle Jeremie Lortie enjoyed a ruthless performance of his own, putting up 21 points on an incredible 15 of 18 hitting with a single error (.778).
In the season-finale against Montreal, Laval trotted out several bench players and limited distribution of the ball to mainstays such as de Grandpre. Nonetheless, the match was a walk (the first two sets ended 25-7 and 25-10). Laval will go through the formalities of the RSEQ 'playoffs' before we see them in Kingston come early March.
#4 Alberta Golden Bears (14-4)
Do I really have to cover the Golden Bears' weekend set against the pedestrian Regina Cougars? Suffice it to say that despite missing rampant outside Mitch Irvine from the lineup, Alberta was rarely hassled in consecutive sweeps at home to the Cougars. Jay Olmstead was channeling Jay Olmstead, and Taylor Hunt responded to added responsibility with two standout performances. Advantage: Alberta bench.
#5 Western Mustangs (16-2)
The Mustangs were upset in straight sets by the Queen's Gaels on Saturday at home. Does it bother me or tarnish my view of Western's strength? Not really. As I mentioned at the top of this long-winded post, I think it was probably a bad idea to take the foot off the proverbial gas pedal against a traditional rival in the form of the tri-colour Kingston squad. Can I say for sure that this was even the case? No. I didn't see this game, and given the teams on offer, it probably would have made my Maroon and Grey stomach hurt.
But I think it's probably safe to say that Western did not approach Saturday's match with the same urgency as the Gaels. No manner of cruise control would allow them to lose to RMC however, as the Mustangs stomped Canada's worst university volleyball team (on the basis of RPI and SRS) in straight sets with their second unit on court.
#5 UBC Thunderbirds (10-8) and #8 Brandon Bobcats (10-8)
These two teams may be the most evenly matched contenders in Canada West, as their weekend set seemed to prove. If I had to pick a team with which I was more impressed however, it would be the Bobcats. Their ever-increasing diversity on the attack is a promising sign for both the business end of this season, and campaigns to come. In Friday's four-set loss, Brandon had five hitters eclipse double-digits in points, while four of those same attackers repeated the feat over the course of the straight set win the next night. For a team rebounding from the loss of CIS great Paul Sanderson and the equally fearsome Kevin Miller, the offence by committee is both novel and working. Brandon's pair of Kiwi import outsides, Ben Glue and Sam Tuivai both impressed against UBC.
#9 McMaster Marauders (13-3)
It was a straightforward weekend for the Marauders with only one game on the docket, and the Maroon and Grey came away with a victory without much in the way of sweat. The Ryerson Rams put up only sporadic resistance as McMaster avenged a November upset at the hands of the Torontonians in straight sets on Friday night. Sophomore outside Jori Mantha led the way for the Marauders with 15 points on 10 of 21 hitting in the win. He also found a new level of accuracy with his spin serve, notching four aces as a result.