By Nathan Liewicki
OTTERBURNE — Matt Friesen couldn’t have drawn up a better way to end his volleyball career with the Providence University College Pilots.
The fifth-year left side put the finishing touches on his second Manitoba Colleges Athletic Conference title with the match-winning kill as the Pilots upset the two-time defending champion Canadian Mennonite University Blazers 3-1 (27-25, 12-25, 28-26, 25-19) on their home floor in Otterburne on Sunday afternoon.
“You can’t ask for a better one. That was unbelievable,” Friesen said. “We came in third and ended up on top, and as a senior, you can’t ask for anything more. It was amazing.”
“With it being in our home building we had that energy from the crowd and they helped us come out on top.”
Friesen, a six-footer from Grunthal, who was named to the All-Conference team in the regular season and the Final Four MVP, led the Pilots with 10 kills.
Fellow graduating player Brett Foley, a six-foot-five middle from Portage la Prairie, chipped in with nine kills, three aces and three digs as the Pilots avenged last season’s 3-0 (25-19, 25-18, 25-22) championship-match defeat to CMU.
“In the most important matches, you want your best players to be the best players, and Matt was definitely leading us today in every area,” third-year head coach Scott Masterson said. “He’s a quiet leader, but boy, he just works so hard and I just really appreciate him. Brett also came up with lots of big plays; they were our best players on the court.”
After an 8-8 regular-season record, Foley noted the Pilots entered the Final Four tournament as an underdog, a role they relished. They ousted the second-seeded Université de Saint-Boniface Les Rouges 3-2 (18-25, 25-16, 20-25, 25-23, 15-10) in a Saturday semifinal to return to the final against a CMU squad they had only managed to take two sets of off in four regular-season meetings.
“I think after our game (Saturday), we really set that precedent that this is our gym, we are here to win and show our fans what we are here to do,” Foley said.
“We came in not really expecting to win,” he added. “We came in ready to play our best and it just turned out great, and we peaked at the right time of the season.”
The Blazers entered the MCAC men’s volleyball Final Four as the top seed, sporting a 15-1 record, and led by All-Conference outside hitters John Nieckarz and Mackenzie Hildebrand.
They breezed through their semifinal match on Saturday, sweeping the fourth-seeded Assiniboine Community College Cougars 3-0 (25-17, 25-13, 25-23), but up against the home team in the final, the Blazers struggled to deal with the pressure of a close match and the constant crowd noise.
“It was definitely something we hadn’t overcome this year yet as we often won in three (sets) throughout the whole year,” said Hildebrand, who led CMU with 17 kills and seven digs. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t pull it out but Prov fans were rowdy and they got under our skin a little bit and they helped them win.”
The opening set remained close, with both teams exchanging small runs. It was tied 23-23 when CMU left side Carter Hofer, who finished with 12 kills and eight digs, made a diving dig to keep the point alive, which led to the Blazers earning a set point.
They were unable to capitalize, however, and a few points later PUC right side Kole Bergman converted a spike to give the Pilots the early advantage and re-igniting the home fans.
As quickly as PUC grabbed hold of the momentum, they lost it. Big-hitting CMU middle Matthew Sawatzky squared the final at a set apiece with one of his six thunderous kills.
“Even though we played bad it’s still one point,” Friesen said. “It was tied after that and it was a fresh game for us, so we didn’t look back or let that bother us.”
Like the first set, the third remained close until the Blazers used a mini four-point burst to jump in front 14-10. The Pilots came back, however, and tied it at 19-19.
CMU had the first crack at gaining a 2-1 lead but the Pilots couldn’t convert with a serve into the net. The Blazers had another chance to win the set, but Friesen came up with a huge solo block.
That proved costly as the Pilots — after failing to convert their first set point — moved in front on a Friesen kill.
“I think our game was inconsistent today,” Hildebrand said. “We couldn’t stay up there for all the points that we needed. It was too bad. We made quite a few errors, which gave them a few points and we just couldn’t pull it out when it was tight.”
PUC trailed 9-8 in the fourth set, but Masterson’s squad continued to apply pressure and inched closer to a fourth MCAC title in program history, with a 10-6 run for a 19-14 lead. Eleven points later, Friesen sent the Pilot fans home happy.
“We hadn’t beaten them all year, so we knew we had an uphill battle to face. We just told the guys that if we can keep the score close, the longer it would stay close the more pressure they would feel,” Masterson said. “I think the guys played our best match we’ve played all year by far. We passed exceptionally well — except for the second set — and I think that was the key because we had a lot more options offensively. Defensively, we had the best defensive match we’ve had all year. All around everyone played their best and that’s what we needed to win.”