It took five sets, but the No. 1 Trinity Western University Spartans are Canada West champions.
In what might have been one of the most intense men’s volleyball matches in the division this season, the Spartans beat the nationally No. 2-ranked University of Manitoba Bisons 3-2 in the Canada West Men’s Volleyball Final Four gold medal game on Saturday night at Investors Group Athletic Centre in Winnipeg.
Set scores were 25-21, 27-29, 16-25, 25-20, and15-9.
The Spartans advanced to the final after a 3-2 win over the University of Alberta Golden Bears on Friday, while the Bisons qualified after beating the UBC Thunderbirds in straight sets.
“That was an intense game,” Spartan head coach Ben Josephson said after the medal presentation. “Once you’re at this stage, everyone’s awesome, so every match is going to be hard … but we found a way.”
Trinity Western veteran Ryan Sclater was named the Canada West Final Four MVP. Evan Jackson and Carter Bergen took home players of the match honours for the Bisons and the Spartans, respectively.
“(It’s) the best,” Josephson said about the crowd, which was likely the largest Investors Group Athletic Centre has seen all year.
“This is what every athlete, every coach dreams about – playing against a great opponent in an environment where everybody’s fired up and then the game gets really exciting. I mean this is what sports is all about. It’s what university sports is all about. This is the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of in Canada West, that’s for sure.”
This was the second time the Bisons have hosted the Canada West Final Four. The first was in the 2003-04 season, when Manitoba also finished second.
It looked like the Bisons might come from behind in the opening set.
After trailing 12-9, Manitoba tied the set at 13 and led 16-14 at the technical timeout. But the Spartans came alive in the latter half of the set. Trinity Western held the Bisons to only five more points in the first, while Ben Lieuwen later served back-to-back aces to bring the visitors to set point. Manitoba lost 25-21 two rallies later on a Ryan Sclater kill.
In the second set, the Bisons had moments of strength, but the squad struggled to gain momentum. Then, with Trinity Western leading 24-22, Adam DeJonckheere recorded two consecutive kills to tie and extend the game.
Neither team could gain much headway in the intense final rallies of the set.
The Bisons and Spartans tied three more times before a Trinity Western attack error put Manitoba up 28-27. The next rally, veteran right-side Devren Dear brought the home crowd to its feet when he landed his 10th kill of the game to give the Bisons the set 29-27.
The Bisons found their stride in the third, jumping out to an early 16-9 lead entering the technical timeout.
Trinity Western, however, started to turn things around late in the set. Down 22-11, the Spartans won five of the next six rallies, including three on Dear attack errors. But Manitoba won back the serve, later taking the third 25-16.
“We were playing really well, and you could just see that they were feeling the pressure and starting to wonder what the outcome was going to be,” Bison head coach Garth Pischke said. “In the beginning of the fourth set, we missed four out of five serves and just let them get back into the game.”
Those four serves helped the Spartans quickly lead and then win the fourth. Josephson credits Trinity West’s success in the set, in part, to Scott Plocktis. The veteran setter entered the game as Manitoba was starting to make a comeback. With only a 22-20 lead, the Spartans held off the Bisons long enough to take the set 25-20 and stretch the match to a fifth and final set.
That last set was rocky for Manitoba and a triumph for Trinity Western, which maintained a five-point lead for much of the fifth. Sclater earned his MVP status with five kills for the Spartans, while the Bison offence seemed to fall flat. In the end, the Spartans took the set 15-9 and the game 3-2.
“It’s been a five-year process with these guys,” Pischke said. “It’s been a lot of fun being a part of that and watching us get better every year. Every year, we took a couple steps forward. We never once took a step backwards.”
Every team from the Canada West Final Four tournament advances to the U Sports championship, which will be held at the University of Alberta in Edmonton from March 17 to 19.
“It was a real nice journey with these guys,” Pischke said of his squad. “It’s been great watching them get better. We took another step tonight with this team, and hopefully there’s one more step we can take next week.”