Stevenson savours stretch run of five-year career with Griffins team aiming to clinch playoff spot

Mckenna Stevenson accomplished the rare feat last season of becoming the only middle in the conference to lead her team in kills. And she might do it again in this, her final season - leading the Griffins in kills entering weekend action against Alberta (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Mckenna Stevenson accomplished the rare feat last season of becoming the only middle in the conference to lead her team in kills. And she might do it again in this, her final season - leading the Griffins in kills entering weekend action against Alberta (Robert Antoniuk photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – As the weeks wind down to the end of her MacEwan Griffins women's volleyball career, Mckenna Stevenson is trying to enjoy every moment.

Her five-year journey has been filled with highs like making the Canada West All-Rookie team in 2016 and lows like missing the playoffs on a sets won/sets lost tiebreaker last season.

One thing for sure: being a Griffin is something she will have a badge of honour for a long time after she soon graduates from MacEwan with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in biology.

"It's been a little bit of a roller-coaster," she said. "I wouldn't trade anything that's happened for the world. It's been awesome."

Stevenson is still writing the final chapter to her Griffins' career as the Griffins (11-5) aim to clinch their first Canada West playoff berth in program history. MacEwan hosts cross-town rival Alberta (9-5) on Friday (6 p.m.) and Saturday (5 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

It stands to be a terrific showdown that could go either way between teams that traded wins over each other in recent exhibition action. Both are in the hunt for a first-round home playoff date, adding to the intrigue.

"It's just the next stepping stone," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs, whose team has won nine of its last 10 matches. "I think both offences are two of the more creative ones in the league. It's taken us a long time to get there, but they're always the benchmark. They're disciplined, they're good defensively, they have great athletes, perennial all-stars, but we know we can compete with them.

"We're really excited because we have a home court. And that matters. It's going to be great atmosphere because both teams are in Edmonton. The crowd is going to be really good and supportive of both teams."

Stevenson will be a big key, as always, if the Griffins are to find success. She forms a titanic 1-2 punch in the middle with fellow senior Haley Gilfillan.

"You can't talk about one without the other," said Briggs. "They've grown together and become a dominant force in the middle.

"Having two middles that can play at a high level both offensively and defensively is huge," he added. "Teams might have good blockers. Teams might have a middle that hits a first-tempo ball. But most teams don't have two. For them to have that opportunity since Year 1, you talk about replacing them … this might not happen for another decade when you get two so good at both parts of the game.

"We are even forgetting about their defensive ability Their whole skill-set is special."

That's in part because they're competitive with one another, too.

"We've talked about how we're holding each other accountable," said Stevenson. "We are each other's reasons why we're two of the best middles in the league because we like to compete with each other.

"We balance each other out a lot. Her strengths are my weaknesses. My strengths are her weaknesses. We're very even and it's really cool to have her as my comrade at my position."

What Stevenson brings, specifically, is a rare athleticism to the position, allowing her to block and score against middles up to six inches taller than she is. She was the only middle in the conference last season to lead her team in kills and she's in the midst of potentially doing it again, entering the weekend tops on the Griffins with 138 kills through 16 games.

"Just her quickness and her jumping ability has allowed her, as a 5-foot-11 middle, to compete with all the best in our conference," said Briggs. "It is that speed and quickness that she has. She has tremendous offensive skills and her blocking has been as good as anybody's.

"She really has a volleyball mind. She understands the game and where she needs to be, how a game plan makes her better. People notice her offensive ability. She's quite phenomenal in that aspect."

A lot of that has grown with the confidence she gained from the Canada West all-rookie recognition and the prestige of being the first in program history to achieve that feat.

"I saw that I was recognized as an athlete that could play in this league," she said. "It motivated me to do more. I wanted to do more and achieve more. I think I definitely have. Last year, with the stats I had – I was leading the team in kills and that doesn't happen for a middle. It kind of validated that I can do this and I can be one of the top athletes in the league."

It's clear Stevenson will be remembered for a long time at MacEwan and the feeling is mutual. The memories she has of a great time as a Griffin will be with her always.

"It's definitely going to be the highlight of my life for a long time," she said. "I'm always going to be a Griffin, no matter what. I'm going to support the girls in the years to come because we have an amazing program and the girls are very dedicated to what's happening. It's the best time of my life so far."

Fans attending this weekend's games can get in free by bringing a gently-used winter jacket, scarf, mitts or the like as part of the Griffins' coat drive to help Edmontonians in need.