GUELPH, ON – When you've waited five years for a playoff match – and six years for a playoff match at home – you don't want to waste the opportunity.
And the Guelph Gryphons didn't waste theirs.
The Gryphs won their OUA men's volleyball quarter-final playoff match 3-1 over the visiting Nipissing Lakers at the Guelph Gryphons Athletics Centre. Set scores were 26-28, 25-19, 27-25, 27-25.
It was Guelph's first appearance in the post-season since 2012, and the team's first playoff win since 2011. It will send them to this year's OUA Final Four tournament next weekend at McMaster University.
"We're so excited," said head coach Cal Wigston, remembering that a year ago, after yet another season of missing the playoffs, the team took a long look at itself and wondered how it could get better.
"We've got to do something to turn this program around," he recalled thinking. "And the guys have really, really stepped up."
Third-year right side Zachary Newman said the key has been simply to treat this season like it was an opportunity to write a new story.
"We just forgot about the past," said the Kitchener, ON native, who led the Gryphs on Saturday with 20 kills, and also contributed 11 digs. "It's a new gym, new season, new team. We forgot our past."
Saturday's match was an epic struggle, with three of the four sets going beyond the 25-point winning target. But the Gryphs had to shake off some disappointment after the first set, which they led 24-21 but ended up losing.
"We blew the first set. We had the first set – we had them," Wigston said. "That part was tough, but you know what? My guys are so resilient, and just great character guys."
"Something like that breaks you down a little bit mentally, but I think we responded really well to it," Newman said. "I think we all refocused and played good volleyball, and we came out on top."
Newman added that the Lakers started to play like they had Guelph beaten, and as a result the Gryphs came away with a relatively easy victory in the second set.
But the Lakers dug deep too, fighting back from 24-23 in the third set and from 24-21 in the fourth set to extend both. On both occasions, though, the Gryphs would not fold as they had done earlier.
"We're a scrappy team. We don't enjoy it, but we're usually neck and neck with other teams," Newman said. "When we get down to the last few points, we fight back to make sure we take the win."
"The confidence this team has in each other is incredible," said second-year left side Jared Harris, who also had a big game, making 13 kills and earning 11 digs.
"Even when we're down four points, five points, whatever it is, we have each other's backs and we're playing like brothers. And that's special. The last team I was on that did that, we won OFSAA. It's a good feeling," added the Whitby, ON native and graduate of St. Clair Secondary School.
Kendrick Kerr had 12 kills for the Gryphs, Joshua Green added nine, and Samuel Nothnagel had eight. Samuel Kloke led all players with 45 assists and also had a team-best 13 digs.
Coach Wigston said winning yet another tough struggle bodes well for the Gryphs as they get ready for next weekend's OUA Final Four in Hamilton.
"We're appreciative of those things," he said, noting that before every match, the team members bond by talking about what they are grateful for.
"We practise that art of being grateful, which I believe really makes you get you into a better state of mind before you play. And one of the things the guys said was, we're grateful that we've been able to play some tough games and get us ready for this point."
"It's awesome to be where we are right now, and we're fortunate for every game we get now," agreed Harris. "It would be wonderful to win an OUA championship. We're all excited to go to the Final Four, and we're all excited to work hard like we have been this whole season."
"The Final Four was a big goal in our mind, but to us that's not the end," said Newman. "We want to go to nationals, and we still have to beat Waterloo."
The Gryphs will play the Waterloo Warriors in their OUA semifinal match next Friday at 6 p.m., while the host McMaster Marauders host the Ryerson Rams.
The gold medal match will take place on Saturday. Both finalists will represent the OUA at the U SPORTS championship tournament March 17 to 19 at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
Source: Guelph Gryphons