uSports: Men's Recap January 24th-27th
It’s been a sharp fall from grace for the defending National Champions UBC Thunderbirds (7-11) this year. If losing five players from last year’s team wasn’t enough - they even had a coaching change as Kerry MacDonald begins a new role with Volleyball Canada. Starting four 1st and 2nd years -the Thunderbirds struggled in the first half of the season, finding themselves at the bottom of the league with a 2-10 record going into Christmas. But 2019 has been a different story as they put together 4-straight wins against MacEwan and UBCO, while seeing some impressive growth from some of their young team. Going into a rematch with #2 Trinity Western Spartans (12-4) however, is a different matter. With everyone but Adam Schreimer back from last year’s team who fell to UBC in the National Final and ended their chance to be the first team in over 40 years to win 3-straight National Championships. And after the way the Spartans dismantled TRU last weekend - it seemed like they were getting ready to thrash the Thunderbirds. Instead, the Thunderbirds put the league on notice by stealing a 3-1 win at the Langley Events Centre on Friday night. Despite dropping the 1st, UBC fought their way through the next three sets playing solid defence and spreading the ball evenly - four players reached double digits in points. Led by 2nd-year Coltyn Liu (Vancouver, BC) on the left and 1st-year Matt Neaves (Calgary, AB) on the right, the Thunderbirds proved they can be deadly pretty much anywhere - all of this while missing outside Michael Dowhaniuk (Whiterock, BC) and setter Ben Hooker (Winnipeg, MB) from their usual starting lineup. Five would be as far as their win streak got to, as the Spartans came back to stifled the Thunderbirds offence with strong serving and defence, not to mention pounding the ball down the middle. Both Pearson Eshenko (Banff, AB) and Jackson Howe (Calgary, AB) ended the night with 10 points, with Eshenko going 9-for-13 and Howe 8-for11. Brodie Hofer (Langley, BC) also put together decent performance in the absence of Eric Loeppky (Winnipeg, MB), going 7-for-16 adding 2 aces and a match-high 7 digs.
With the win on Friday, the Thunderbirds pumped-up their playoff hopes a little as they move into a tie for 8th with Manitoba (7-11) who lost both their matches to Thompson Rivers (9-7) this weekend. It was a massive matchup for both as they came in tied with 7-7 records and serious playoff implications were on the line. TRU’s Tim Dobbert (Aichelberg, Germany) obviously knew his team had to put a stop to their 6-game skid - and he did so by putting together a massive 50-point weekend. Friday he was a sledgehammer - putting up 27 kills while hitting a eye-opening .426 on 47 attempts, while Saturday was a more “reserved” game with 19 kills for 21 points. Setter Anton Napolitano (Victoria, Australia) was the key to getting Dobbert the ball - putting up 41 assists, and maybe a more impressive 5 kills and 6 aces for 12 points on Friday, and followed it with a 46 assist and 8 dig performance on Saturday. The win bumps the Wolfpack into a tie for 5th, while the Bisons are now fighting for the playoffs tied for 8th.
The Saskatchewan Huskies (9-9) were another team to stoke their playoff fire this weekend, coming out of Edmonton with a split against the #6 Alberta Golden Bears (12-4) after a 3-2 win on Friday night. Dylan Mortensen (Swift Current, SK) continued to put up some good numbers with 17 kills and 19 points while Colin Fraser (Saskatoon, SK) and Daulton Sinoski (Prince Albert, SK) added 14 points a piece. The Huskies were also helped by the 35 hitting and 19 serving errors on the night, as the Golden Bears outscored them 76-60 on the night - fuelled but Taryq Sani’s (Scarborough, ON) 22 kill performance and manufactured by setter Max Elgert (Edmonton, AB) who dished out 54 assists and adding a match-high (and probably weekend-high to be honest) 16 digs. The Huskies played arguably better on Saturday, hitting a .352 as a team while Mortensen dropped 30 kills hitting a .371 - but so did the Golden Bears as they were back to playing their usual clean volleyball, hitting a cool .339 as a team and Sani once again dropped 22 kills while hitting a .465. The win brings the Huskies keeps the Huskies tied for 5th alongside Thompson Rivers.
While the Top 4 in the CanWest Playoff Race may have been determined - spots 5-8 are a dogfight. At the top of the pile, the 9-7 TRU Wolfpack and 9-9 Saskatchewan Huskies are tied with 18 points - with the Wolf Pack holding two games at hand. The Wolfpack host #1 Brandon next weekend to even things up, and if they don’t manage to stop the top team in the country on a 12-game win streak - they will be all even for their match-up on February 8th and 9th. Looking past that - The Wolfpack meet up with 0-18 UBCO to close out the regular season, while the Huskies host the 13-3 #3 Mount Royal Cougars. So yeah, take that as you will. A game behind them in the standings are the 8-8 Calgary Dinos in 7th with 16 points, who also have a couple games at hand. They visit the 3-13 MacEwan Griffins next weekend, and could potentially leap frog into 5th with a pair of wins. They follow that up with a cross-town match-up against the #3 Mount Royal Cougars that you know has much more than just playoff implications, before hosting the 7-11 UBC Thunderbirds - who only sit a game behind the Dinos with 14 points. The Thunderbirds get a much needed weekend off after going 5-1 to start 2019 - and they will need their energy to make the final push towards the playoffs. Before that crucial game against Calgary, it’s a match up with 5-11 Winnipeg Wesman, who currently sit only a pair of games behind with 10 points - and have two games at hand. The Wesman have the Winnipeg derby against the 7-11 Manitoba Bisons, who are also fighting for their playoff lives and barely hanging on the 8th. A win for the Wesman would bring them into a 3-way tie for 8th - while a win for the Bisons would bury the Wesman and give them a leg up before taking on #2 TWU. The Wesman will close out their season against the #6 Alberta Golden Bears. The sum things up - 6 teams are fighting for 4 spots, and there’s no doubt the standings will be changing more than once before at all settles.
It was a relatively quiet weekend in the OUA, allowing the Queens Gaels (10-3) to make their statement even louder as they are the currents Kings of the OUA East - kicking both the Ryerson Rams (9-4) and the Toronto Varsity Blues (9-5) off to stand alone at the tops. Zac Hutcheson (Kingston, ON) led the charge with 15 kills and 17 points against the Varsity Blues on Saturday, and 18 kills on a .438 for 19 points against the Rams on Sunday. Zane Grossinger (Aurora, ON) continues to keep the ship straight with another solid weekend, putting up 40 assists with the team hitting .358 on Saturday and 38 assists for a .265 on Sunday. Rookie Xander Ketrzynski (Toronto, ON) continues to impress and make a serious case for uSports Rookie of the Year - leading the young Rams with 13 kills for 18 points against Royal Military College (1-12) before adding another 14 kills for 16 points Queens.
It was so quiet in the OUA that we finally heard something from the Waterloo Warriors (5-6), as they win back-to-back games for the first time this season. Considered a top team in the OUA for the past few years, they finished last season just a game above .500 with a 9-8 record, barely sneaking into 4th place in the West. Expected to bounce back this year as a young roster matured - they currently find themselves on the outside looking in. They traded sets with the York Lions (4-6) before finally taking it 15-7 and we got to see rookie Nolan Spencer (Kitchener, ON) lead the way with 15 kills and hitting a .393 for 18 points while Deman Dulat (Mississauga, ON) added 13 kills hitting a .333 for 17 points. Next, they finished the weekend clean 3-0 - including a 25-13 3rd set. Kevin Lebreux (Ottawa, ON) woke up from an awful -.103 outing the day before with an efficient 11-for17 and 15 points while Dulat chipped in going 11-for-16 for 12 points.
While the RSEQ is two teams bigger this year with the addition of Dalhousie and UNB - it’s the same old story in the standings. While the #10 Montreal Carabins (10-3) made the fairytale run to give us the first RSEQ Champion not wearing Rouge et Or in 14 years - that’s definitely not the case this year. The #4 Laval Rouge et Or are the only undefeated team in uSports - and when you do it 25-16, 25-21, 25-20 against the 2nd-place team in the conference, it’s not just winning, it’s domination. So much domination, that apparently Vincente Villalobos (Santiago, Chile) can pretty much score at will. He went 23-for-30 on Friday, hitting a ridiculous .700 and finishing with 26 points.