Down two sets to none, the Canadian Mennonite University Blazers didn’t stop fighting and came back to win the match. The Blazers won a thrilling five set championship game (14-25, 26-28, 25-17, 25-20, 17-15) over the top-ranked Providence University College Pilots on Sunday.
The title is CMU’s third in the last four years, and comes a year following their loss to the Pilots in last year’s final.
“I guess we owed them one after last year,” said championship weekend MVP Carter Hofer post-game.
Hofer made key kills and digs for the Blazers throughout the match, while blockers Makoy Penner and Matt Sawatzky made their presence felt at the net all game long.
CMU dropped the first set 25-14, where the Pilots looked to be playing as good as they did in Saturday’s semi-final match. On Saturday, they had a three set sweep over the Université de Saint-Boniface Les Rouges.
Pilots left side Jonas Friesen slammed down four kills and stuffed the Blazers for three solo blocks in PUC’s dominant opening frame.
The Blazers regrouped and went attack for attack with the Pilots in the second set. CMU led 23-18 late in the frame, before the Pilots called a timeout. Two aces and a kill from Will Ramsey and two kills from Friesen propelled PUC to a 24-23 lead. Hofer pounded down a kill on the next play to tie things at 24 and then the two teams exchanged consecutive kill attempts, tying the set at 26. Friesen connected on a kill the following play, and Thomas Copland scored the set-winning point.
Hofer said losing the set after leading the majority of it really hurt and said it could have been a deflating loss if the Blazers didn’t have the roster they do.
“After that [set loss] we had our team huddle and I looked at them and I said, ‘it’s going to be a crazy story boys’,” Hofer said.
Penner said they made adjustments after the second set and switched to their number two defence.
“We started shifting everything to cross court blocks instead of blocking in line,” said Penner. “That seemed to work for us pretty well once we got a couple big blocks, the guys were all pretty hype and the rest is kind of history from that point.”
Penner opened service in the third set, and an ace gave CMU an early 3-0 lead. Penner contributed in every aspect in the third set, serving up two aces, slamming down two kills and blocking an attack. A massive Sawatzky block resulted in cheers echoing throughout the gym, as the Blazers took a late 21-15 third set lead. Hofer sent a ball straight to the floor on a monstrous kill to win the set.
Up by one point late in the fourth set, the Blazers fired off three straight kills from Matthew Page, Penner and Gayleard, extending their lead to 22-18. Back-to-back tip plays by Penner pushed the Blazers to win the set — forcing a fifth and final set to determine the championship.
Things were looking good for the Pilots in the final frame — they led 12-8, needing just three points to be crowned MCAC champions for the second consecutive year.
But the Blazers had other plans.
The Blazers scored five straight points to take a late 13-12 lead. During the five-point run, Gayleard connected on a kill after a long rally and Sawatzky blocked a strong kill from PUC’s Ramsey.
The Blazers led 14-13, one point away from winning the match, but Friesen made no mistake on his attack to tie the score at 14. Sawatzky and Friesen perfectly executed a kill each on the next two plays, forcing a tie at 15. Finally, Page fired down a huge kill and Penner ended the match with another massive block, to crown CMU the MCAC champions.
“It felt really good to beat a rival and to do it in the fashion we did,” said Hofer. “It was a great way to have our last game as a team.”
Penner is graduating this year and played his final game for the Blazers. He said this is how he would have wanted to go out.
“It’s just so surreal to win the fifth set 17-15, couldn’t ask for a better way to win it,” Penner said.
Hofer was named championship weekend MVP, but said the awards says more about his teammates than it says about him.
“If I didn’t have my teammates it’s a different story,” said Hofer. “If Makoy’s not in the front row drawing the blockers attention, then I have blockers on me, and I can’t do it.”
The Loewen Athletic Centre was filled to capacity and people were even watching from outside the doors. Fans were drumming, ringing cow bells and chanting all game long, which is something Penner said helped the Blazers win the game.
“It helped a little bit because we were getting in our heads. So, the fans helped us get out of it a little bit,” said Penner.
Penner said as loud as the fans in the bleachers were, it’s the teammates on the bench that really fuelled the team to victory.
“They’re amazing. That’s where all our energy comes from,” he said.