Griffins snap 10-game losing streak with impressive 3-0 win over Huskies

Mark Alexander blasts a ball past the block of Saskatchewan's Luke Wandzura on Saturday. Alexander had 10 kills to provide a huge presence in the middle for MacEwan (
Mark Alexander blasts a ball past the block of Saskatchewan's Luke Wandzura on Saturday. Alexander had 10 kills to provide a huge presence in the middle for MacEwan (

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

SASKATOON – The drought is over for the MacEwan Griffins men's volleyball team.

Winning their first match since Oct. 18 – a 3-0 triumph over the Saskatchewan Huskies (25-23, 25-23, 25-23) on Saturday – the Griffins were a happy bunch on the evening bus ride back to Edmonton.

"Unfortunately, it has been quite a while," said head coach Brad Poplawski of the result which snapped a 10-game losing streak. "The guys are pretty happy. It's always a lot better mood and a lot better for the coach seeing your guys experience that.

"People just see the games and they don't see how hard these guys work in the classroom, on court, training and in the weight room. I know they're doing everything the coaching staff is asking and it can be pretty tough mentally more than anything when you're working that hard and you're not getting results. It just validates some of the stuff we've been doing."

With the result, the Griffins salvaged a weekend split with the Huskies (7-7) and improved to 2-10 in the Canada West standings. It puts them eight points back of the final post-season berth, but more importantly gives them some belief. They not only just knocked off a probable playoff team, it's the first time MacEwan has ever beaten Saskatchewan in Canada West men's volleyball action.

"We were 0-11 heading into tonight," noted Poplawski of a Griffins program that's built to this moment since entering Canada West out of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in 2014. "We finally beat them. They're a very good team. They're going to be a playoff team. I don't know what their national ranking is right now, but I know they're up there.

"For us, it was just really gratifying. It's always great when your players get to celebrate a win."

Part of MacEwan's Saturday success was due to a tactical switch as Max Vriend and Jordan Peters swapped sides of the court in an experiment that put the Huskies on their heels.

"Max has lined up as a left side and he'd maybe pass one rotation, but he actually passed full time today and did a very good job," said Poplawski. "Petey did a really good job on the right, especially in his block. It's something we maybe haven't trained a ton, but it's something we've toyed with here and there.

"We weren't happy last night, and we thought this was a good chance to make that change. The guys really responded."

Vriend led the Griffins with 12 kills on a sterling .375 percentage, while MacEwan's middles made a big difference. Mark Alexander had his best game as a Griffin with 10 kills on a .438 percentage, adding three blocks, while Keenan Koss added seven blocks. Rookie setter Thomas Watchman had 30 assists.

"It's a different game when you get middle production," said Poplawski. "Mark Alexander had 10 kills for us tonight. It's the first time since Max was a middle that we've had a guy hit double digits from there. When you have your middle going and Tommy was setting him quite well, it just opens up your offence. Now their middle has to respect. It opens up your pipe, it opens up both pin options.

"Both him and Keenan had some big middle vs middle blocks down the stretch," he added. "In a tight set, that could be a pretty big turning point. Yesterday we had chances in the middle and they scored. My assistant coach Eirik (Thomassen) called for them to commit and they did and executed the plays. It was good to see that."

Alexander combined with Jefferson Morrow to block Saskatchewan's Daulton Sinoski for the decisive point that gave the Griffins the opening set.

They rolled with the momentum from there, never allowing Saskatchewan to go on runs like they did in Friday's 3-0 win over the Griffins. In Set 2, Vriend's big kill proved to be the deciding point.

And in Set 3, MacEwan closed out the match when Saskatchewan server Jake Rapin sent his offering too long.

"I thought we limited the noise tonight," said Poplawski of a term he coined to describe how MacEwan often gives up four or five points in a row before righting the ship. "We wanted to side out first chance every time. I think we did a pretty good job of our side out game and not allowing those runs of three, four, five points. We capped it at one or two.

"I think that's because our passing was good, and Tommy ran an efficient offence. That led to our hitters making some good choices and we were able to run some middle, which opens up your playbook."

The Griffins next return home to host the UBC Thunderbirds on Jan. 10-11.