Thrilling comeback gives Griffins first win of the season - an epic five-set gem over UBCO

The Griffins celebrate after Seth Birkholz's kill gave them a 15-10 win in Set 5 and their first win of the season (Eduardo Perez photo).
The Griffins celebrate after Seth Birkholz's kill gave them a 15-10 win in Set 5 and their first win of the season (Eduardo Perez photo).

Jason Hills
For MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – This season hasn't been easy for the MacEwan Griffins, but they've never displayed a moment where they've packed it in and said enough is enough. 

Now, they finally got rewarded, and in fitting fashion, their first win of the season wasn't easy. 

The Griffins battled back from 2-1 down to earn a dramatic five-set victory (25-16, 23-25, 24-26, 28-26, 15-10) over the UBCO Heat on Friday night at the David Atkinson Gym. 

Mitchel Gorman and Daylan Andison led the Griffins with 16 kills each, while Seth Birkholz recorded 13 kills on an incredible .650 hitting percentage, which broke Kai Hesthammer's single-game record of .600 in 2017 (minimum of 20 attacks). 

Setter Alexander Lyndon led MacEwan with 50 assists, six kills and 10 digs. 

Lucas Woelders led UBCO with 19 kills and 14 digs, while Zach van Geel chipped in with 14 kills in the loss. 

"It's been a long year, and obviously not the way we hoped it would go... but it shows our team's character that they wanted to come out and end our season on a positive note," said Griffins head coach Brad Poplawski. 

"It was a real battle, and we knew it would be a close one, but we really showed some good things and we had to battle through some tough moments, but our guys showed a great attention to detail, and we just found a way." 

After facing two big powerhouse programs over the last two weeks against Alberta and Trinity Western, the Griffins weren't able to pull out a set win, but they pushed both the Golden Bears and Spartans in their losses, and they learned a lot from those games. You could tell they used that experience against a more level opponent in UBCO. 

"The last two weeks playing heavyweights like U of A and Trinity, after a long season, it could've been easy for guys to not use those weekends the right way, but we found ways to improve," said Poplawski. 

"When you've been losing like we have, it's never going to be easy, and sometimes you forget what (winning) it's like. I just think for them to play those tight sets and find a way to be on the right side of it, especially in those last two sets -- it's awesome." 

Seth Birkholz tips the match-winning kill over the UBCO block on Friday. It was his 20th attack of the game, making his sizzling .650 attacking efficiency number stand up as the new program record (Eduardo Perez photo).

The Griffins looked to be in cruise control after a dominant first set win. UBCO took an early lead, but a kill from Jonah Karsten tied it at 6-6, and MacEwan would take the lead on the very next point, and they wouldn't relinquish the lead the rest of the set. 

Birkholz would record one of his two aces to make it 14-12, and then the Griffins put the pedal to the medal as they would outscore the Heat 11-4 the rest of the way. 

MacEwan and UBCO would go right down to the wire in the second set as Birkholz and Andison would get back-to-back kills and Gorman nailed one of his three aces on the night to tie it at 23-23, but the set slipped away. 

The third set was almost a carbon copy of the third, as the Griffins held the lead and went toe-to-toe with UBCO, but the Heat were able to close out another close set, even after MacEwan took a 24-23 lead. 

With their backs against the wall, the Griffins came out firing taking a 7-1 lead off the strength of back-to-back aces from Gorman, who also recorded 16 digs for MacEwan. 

But then things started to unravel, as UBCO got into a rhythm, and had a ton of momentum as they led 17-14, but MacEwan stuck around. A kill from Birkholz made it 21-20, and then a nice tip from Andison tied it at 22-22. 

UBCO had MacEwan facing match point twice in the fourth set, but a kill from Andison, and back-to-back kills from Lyndon would give the Griffins a 27-26 lead, and MacEwan was able to complete the comeback to force a fifth set. 

"We talked about putting pressure on them from the baseline and let our block defence set around them, and in the fourth and fifth we did that," said Poplawski. 

"That was by far our best output in the middle. When you see great numbers like that, it shows great offence by Alex. It wasn't just one guy; he ran an offence. 

"He found ways to keep guys involved and keep (UBCO) off balance. The middle's opened a lot of things for the hitters outside." 

In the fifth set, MacEwan simply wasn't going to be denied. UBCO held a 4-3 lead early, but MacEwan was relentless, especially attacking UBCO in the middle, and it was fitting that Birkholz, the most efficient attacker for MacEwan, ended the night with the winning kill to take the final set 15-10. 

"It's been a tough year all-around, but this is a perfect win for us. Being down, but not giving up, and we were fighting harder than ever to make sure we ended up on top tonight," said Birkholz. 

"Alex did a great job slinging the ball around and finding a lot of one-on-ones and we were able to capitalize on them. It was nice to see everyone chip in and go off (offensively) together like that is great." 

MacEwan and UBCO will wrap up their seasons on Saturday (3 p.m., David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV).