National title hopes still alive for MRU men’s volleyball team
By Dan Khavkin, Sports Editor
Cougar Athletics saw its most historic run in school history hit a bump in the road last weekend as MRU’s men’s volleyball team were swept at the hands of the best volleyball program in the nation, the Brandon Bobcats in the Canada West semi-final.
Despite the hopes of a conference banner being cut off, MRU’s post-season is still alive.
USPORTS week 24 rankings show the Cougars sitting fourth place. Pending that ranking holds heading into the weekend, MRU would officially be one of two schools within the top six to qualify to the national playoffs next week.
Heading into the Canada West playoffs, MRU finished their season 15-7 and peaked as high as second in the national top 10 rankings from the second weekend of the season.
MRU sat consistently well within the top five and struck fear down its opponents back every weekend as a team to beat.
After getting handed their first and second losses of the season in the second weekend of play, MRU went on an 11-1 tear before getting plagued by injury and losing its brightest stars in a star-studded roster.
Both fifth-years, outsider Tyler Schmidt and setter Tanner Graves fought through injury in the latter half of the winter semester that also saw the Cougars drop in form as they finished the season 2-4 after the monstrous run.
On the backs of veterans carrying the load along with the contributions from keynote additions, MRU finished fourth in the formidable Canada West conference that saw eight of the national top 10 programs come from the West Coast with the Cougars finishing the season in fifth to mark their best regular season since joining the university level seven seasons ago.
The Cougar program’s accolades began to slowly pile on one another. On top of finishing with an impressive 15-7 record in Canada’s toughest conference, the Cougars hosted the first ever USPORTS playoff match on home court.
“There’s a lot of pride. We had so many milestones this year coming off a rough season last year. Our veteran core have done what they have done and to watch a number of keynote additions thrive the way they have has been a lot of fun,” says head coach Shawn Sky.
Despite the back-to-back losses in the final weekend of play to the Saskatchewan Huskies, another important moment in the program’s history was made as Schmidt became Canada West’s number one leader in all-time points and kills.
In the quarter-finals, both teams drew each other for a rematch just one weekend apart but it was the Cougars who put on a dominating display on home-court and swept the 12-10 and no.8 nationally ranked Huskies to advance into the semi-final and be two wins away from securing a spot at nationals.
The nation’s number one team in the 20-2 Brandon Bobcats played hosts to the chasing Cougars. MRU handed Brandon it’s only two losses during the season and seemed to the the Bobcats’ kryptonite once again, winning a game one decision in straight sets and were only mere three sets away from moving onto the Canada West finals.
The Bobcats however, responded ferociously and formulated 3-1 and 3-0 wins of their own to abruptly end any hopes of MRU reaching the Canada West final but the hopes of reaching nationals was unofficially solidified with that huge game one win over BU to open the series.
“I knew going into Brandon we had an 80 per cent chance of going. When we won game one that jumped to around 95,” says Sky.
As soon as no. 2 TRW moved on, MRU’s chances of qualifying for the national playoffs was pretty much set in stone.
If Trinity Western or now ranked no. 5 MacMaster lost their playoff series, MRU’s season would have officially ended.
Beating BU helped the Cougars jump up the national rankings as the volleyball ranking system takes the degree of difficulty into account, among other things.
The weekend at BU was a great step for the preparation for nationals.
Sky explains, “Nationals is a week-long event. I don’t expect any hangover in terms of prep for nationals. Our guys are missing a week of school and within that week we are going to rest and catch up on academics.
“Our guys gave tremendous efforts against the highest ranked team in the nation.”
He adds how the weekend was a great way to prepare for the biggest stage of them all.
“The crowd was over capacity, they had around 1,500 in attendance every night and it was good prep for us to play in that environment. We had a great Thursday but Brandon adjusted well and did a great job responding.
“Anytime you lose it’s disappointing but at the same time our guys fought through a number of injuries along with the silver lining being that we get a week to prep and be healthy for nationals.
“The year has been a success already and the fact we get to do what we love for another week is fantastic,” says Sky.
Sky’s team is the first team at MRU to qualify for a USPORTS national playoff.
“It was only a matter of time before one of the sports or one of the programs made nationals. I hope it becomes a vicarious experience for everyone in our school and all our teams at Mount Royal. We’re thrilled to be going to nationals.”
Barring the injury bug plaguing the squad again, Sky’s boys will look to be in their best medical shape since early January.
“Thank you to the professors for their support. It’s not lost on us that we lost school time. A special thanks to our athletic therapy that has carried the load behind the scenes and we would not have gotten where we are without them, helping with all the injuries we faced.”
“As excited as we are, we have to focus on the idea that it’s just volleyball at the end of the day.”