The match durations for volleyball flipped between the two Ook squads this past weekend. NAIT’s women’s team was swept 0-3 and 2-3 by the visiting Grande Prairie Wolves, while the men came from behind to win 3-2 on Friday before shutting out the Wolves Saturday. The two losses drop the women to 13-7, solidifying the team as the North Division fourth seed. By sweeping the Wolves, the men improve to 18-4 and maintain their narrow lead on the division.
Friday night, the ladies just couldn’t find a groove, struggling to pass the powerful Grande Prairie serves. Despite some surges defensively, the Ooks never managed to push the second ranked Wolves. Set scores were 19-25, 16-25 and 19-25. Maegan Kuzyk was player of the game.
Saturday, the ladies came out energized and playing with far more urgency than the night before. The momentum shifted in each set until the Wolves’ size and serving pressure eventually proved too much to handle. Set scores were 25-20, 12-25, 26-24, 16-25 and 8-15. Rookie Alex Blanchette got the start at the setting position and won player of the game.
“Our top end level of play is very good, and we know we can compete with the top teams in our league,” said head coach Benj Heinrichs. “If we can be a little bit more consistent and handle the pressure applied by the good teams for longer stretches, we’ll give ourselves a good chance heading into the playoffs.”
The men’s Friday match began with a short presentation of jerseys to alumni of the men’s program for their contributions to NAIT volleyball. These included Justin Vincent, Colby Holst, Cody Cuthill, Austin Hinchey (current member of Canada’s Sitting National Team) and current assistant coach Greg Gulash.
The match began eerily similar to the women’s with the Ooks losing 23-25 and 19-25. However, the guys responded in the third set with new urgency in their game, taking the next three sets 25-18, 25-22 and 15-9. Trevor Zemlak led NAIT with 16 kills, Bryce Cardinal had 12 kills and four aces and Trent Mounter was POG with nine kills and excellent passing. This marks the first time all season the men have come back after trailing by two sets. A key performance for the Ooks came from libero Jonas Engen. Despite struggling most of the second semester, Engen was a sparkplug off the bench for the Ooks.
“That’s the most emotion we’ve seen out of Jonas in his time at NAIT,” said assistant coach Jordan Taylor. “He’s normally a very soft-spoken player but today we saw a very passionate Jonas; something we hope he carries on moving forward.”
Saturday, the Ooks started where they left off the previous night, controlling the pace of the match from start to finish. NAIT topped the Wolves in every statistical category, including 10 blocks to none. Set scores were 25-20, 25-17 and 25-19. Head coach Doug Anton stressed a change in mentality led the squad to success.
“I think we spent our second term just trying to defend our position in the league, almost playing not to lose and this was the first weekend in a while where we were playing to win.”
Cardinal continued his dominant play with 14 kills, seven digs, three blocks and two aces to earn POG honours.
“He’s a vet, our captain and has recognized this is the time of the year when he needs to perform for us,” said Anton of Cardinal.
This weekend, the Ooks end reading week and the regular season simultaneously by taking on the Augustana Vikings. Augustana’s women’s team is eliminated from playoff contention but the men are still tied with the Ooks for wins.
The action starts in Camrose on Friday before finishing at NAIT on Saturday. These final home matches of the season also serve as the final home matches for several Ooks.
The women’s matches start at 6 p.m. both nights with the men following shortly after.
By Josh Ryan