EDMONTON – After losing two consecutive straight-set victories at home to the No.4 UBC Thunderbirds back in late November, the No.3 University of Alberta Golden Bears responded with a 3-0 win of their own (25-23, 25-23, 25-23) in game one of the best-of-three semifinal series, Friday night at Saville Community Sports Centre.
Sophomore outside hitter Jordan Canham tallied 12 kills for the home team, also notching six block assists, the team only scoring a total of 31 on the night but coming up big on defence, the regular season block leaders earning an impressive 20 block assists in tonight’s match. Fourth-year setter Max Elgert recorded 28 assists.
Outside hitters Coltyn Liu and Michael Dowhaniuk netted nine kills apiece for UBC, third-year setter Ben Hooker earning 27 assists.
Back-to-back in the national rankings, it wasn’t surprising the two teams were close on the scoreboard throughout the opening set, 7-2 and 6-2 runs by the T-Birds showing some potential to break out, but Alberta was relentless at holding their deficit to three or less.
“I thought we were inconsistent,” commented Alberta head coach Brock Davidiuk, “but that in mind, I thought we did a really good job of battling. UBC puts us in trouble as they always do, as with every team, with their serve and I think we did a good job problem-solving that.”
Down 23-21, the Golden Bears rattled off four straight points to take the first set, the final two points courtesy of two big blocks assisted by Canada West All-Rookie Team selection Billy Johnstone, joined by Canham on set point to put the ball straight down into the UBC front court.
“Our block really helped us out,” praised Davidiuk. “We are a blocking team. I think we just need to be more consistent in our overall game. I really think the guys know that, too, but I’m really proud of how well they fought and battled through all phases. Some guys, maybe they weren’t doing great in one area, but they were doing great in a different area.”
The strong Thunderbird serve game, ranking second during conference play, faltered in the second set, leading to 10 errors from the line. Though UBC earned an ace to knot the set at 23-23, sophomore outside hitter Matt Neaves got the service faux-pas to double digits on the very next point. Third-year outside hitter Jackson Kennedy then followed with an ace that fourth-year libero Jonathan Lee and Hooker both tried to recover but fell short, giving Alberta a 2-0 set lead.
“We just struggled throughout,” commented UBC head coach Mike Hawkins. “We had a couple guys who are typically really strong that just weren’t strong for us. Guys we typically lean on emotionally, they have their big plays and we tend to feed off them; I just felt like we struggled to find that all night. Credit to U of A, though, I thought they played well.”
With momentum on the Golden Bears’ side, the hosts came out strong in the final set, the hometown crowd bolstering their plays with loud reactions, none louder than when Kennedy powered a monster kill off the T-Birds’ back row.
Yet it was also the defence that came through for Alberta, more blocks helping keep the home team ahead on the scoreboard for the entire set as well as digs.
“I’m really happy for Michael [Sumner] with the match he had,” praised Davidiuk. “He was the dig leader in the match and he was making some awesome digs. Bryan Fountain came in and made a huge one for us at the end. There was a lot of contribution in all areas.”
Despite leading Canada West with 50 aces in the regular season, Liu committed his sixth service error on the night when he hit the net to give the Golden Bears a 24-22 advantage. Dowhaniuk kept UBC in it for one more point but Canham finished things off with a kill off Hooker and out into the crowd to take the 1-0 semifinal series lead.
I thought Mikey [Dowhaniuk] was fantastic,” praised Hawkins. “Obviously his numbers are pretty big. He’s the guy…again talking about emotion…he’s the guy who brings a lot of positivity on the court. I think even when things weren’t going well for our team, I thought he was the guy who kind of shone through with that positivity.”
Game two of the semifinal series goes Saturday at 5 p.m. Mountain Time.
Mikasa Players of the Match: ALB – Max Elgert; UBC – Michael Dowhaniuk