Marauders set to defend volleyball crown

They’ve earned the right to win on their own terms, and on their own court, but the McMaster Marauders have much work to do this weekend if they are to defend their Ontario University Athletics men’s volleyball title.

McMaster enters Final Four play on Friday (Feb. 21) as the clear favourite, boasting a 19-1 conference record with its only setback in regular-season play coming at the hands of fellow semi-finalists, the Waterloo Warriors. The Marauders are looking to further cement their recent dominance in OUA by winning their fifth conference title in the past seven seasons.

(Photo: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics)

(Photo: Rick Zazulak/McMaster Athletics)

But three teams remain in the way of that objective: the Ryerson Rams, Western Mustangs and the aforementioned Warriors.

Friday’s first semi-final pits Western against Waterloo in a rematch of last year’s semi-final, and promises to be a razor-close decision if recent history is anything to go by. The Mustangs and Warriors played 10 sets over the course of two conference match-ups this season, with Western getting the best of both in the fifth.

In their first meeting, the Mustangs dug out of a 2-1 deficit with the help of a 21.5 point performance by outside hitter Justin Scapinello, and an efficient 17 kills on 24 attempts by middle Phil James. The teams’ second meeting saw Western leapfrog Waterloo for second in the OUA with a 15-13 victory in the fifth set, as Garrett May (16 kills) and Luke Sim (15 points) starred.

Western’s attack is well-established and versatile, with May and Scapinello well supported by Sim and James in the middle. Fifth-year setter Sean Mckay supplies the ball better than perhaps anyone else in the province, and leads OUA with an average of 10.5 assists per set through the regular season. It’s the last chance for glory for the Mustangs’ veteran core, with Mckay, Sim and James all set to graduate in the summer.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are impeccably balanced in both attack and defence, and enter the affair with revenge on their mind. They, too, have a sizable graduating class of starters who are hungry for a long-overdue conference title. Hitters Aleks Poldma, James Evans and Tyler Motherwell face potentially their final varsity match alongside setter Scott Thomson.

Zach Doherty and Evans will be the most prominent names on the outside for Waterloo, each averaging over three points per set through the regular season. The Warriors make good use of their starting middles, Motherwell and Jordan Dyck, in attack. But they also stand as the best blocking duo in the OUA, sitting fourth (0.79) and second (0.86) respectively in blocks per set this season.

Anchoring Waterloo’s stout defence is Erich Wooley, the province’s two-time defending Libero of the Year. In just his third year as a Warrior, Wooley easily led the conference in digs per set (3.29) and total digs (227).

Meeting the winner of that first encounter in Saturday’s final will be either the defending champion Marauders or surprise semi-finalist Rams. Ryerson upset the York Lions on the road in the quarter-final round, and will be confident as they enter their first Final Four since 2008. But their match up is not a favourable one, as McMaster has won 14 of the teams’ 15 encounters since 2007.

The obvious leader of the Ryerson attack is first-time all-star Robert Wojcik, who finished the season ranked fourth in both points per set (4.40) and kills per set (3.68) in the OUA. But the Rams received important contributions from two rookies this season as they vaulted into the conference’s upper echelon. Setter Adam Anagnostopolous was named conference Rookie of the Year after finishing fifth in assists per set (9.45) and fourth in total assists (709) this season, while middle Jeff Ardron led the Rams with 45.5 blocks and was named to the conference’s All-Rookie Team as a result.

Ryerson is a growing threat in OUA, but the Rams will have to get past the conference’s best if they are to advance to the national championships.

That familiar frontrunner is McMaster, led by Player of the Year Jori Mantha, whose hitting average of .364 is the highest among outside hitters in the nation. Despite his gaudy numbers, Mantha is hardly alone in the Marauder attack, with Second Team All-Star Jayson McCarthy joining him in the OUA’s top 10 in points per game (3.37). McMaster’s list of offensive weapons is a long one, and includes Stephen Maar on the outside and the trio of Danny Demyanenko, Alex Elliot and Tyson Alexander through the middle.

Austin Campion-Smith has excelled at the creative controls once again this season, sitting second in the OUA in assists per game (9.90) and claiming a spot as a First Team All-Star as a result.

The Marauders will be favoured on Friday, but will have to avoid complacency in order to dodge the upset on home court.

Western and Waterloo’s first semifinal will get underway at 5:30 p.m. and will be followed by the McMaster-Ryerson tilt at 8:00 p.m. Saturday’s final is scheduled for a 7:00 p.m. start.