BURLINGTON, Ont. - The OUA Men's Volleyball Final Four returns to a familiar court this weekend, as McMaster and the Burridge Gym play host to the conference's top teams for the fifth consecutive season.
Three of the four teams who open the event Friday night make a return to the Final Four, having battled for the title and represented the conference at the CIS Championship at the Burridge Gym a year ago.
The dark horse arrives in the form of the Guelph Gryphons, who return to the Final Four for the first time since 2011 after dispatching the Nipissing Lakers over the course of four sets in a quarterfinal on March 4.
Looking to build on the late-season momentum that saw them win five of six matches to close the regular season, the Gryphons encounter the Waterloo Warriors in Friday's first semifinal, slated to get underway at 5:30 p.m.
2017 marks a sixth consecutive trip to the OUA Final Four for the Warriors, who were finalists in 2015 and bronze medalists a season ago en route to a national championship appearance. They will look to undo the run of luck at season's end which has seen them fall at the semifinal hurdle five times in those six attempts.
The second of Friday's semifinals sees a rematch of last year's OUA final between the Ryerson Rams and the host Marauders, due for first serve at 8:00 p.m.
A year ago, the Marauders swept the Rams to claim their fifth consecutive OUA title on home court. The memory of that encounter, and Mac's similar sweep of Ryerson at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in the teams' only meeting this season, should have the Rams dreaming of revenge.
Ticket information can be found here, and for those unable to make it to the Burridge Gym, the matches will be streaming live on OUA.tv throughout the weekend.
West #4 Waterloo Warriors vs. West #2 Guelph Gryphons
The Warriors and Gryphons both arrive at the semifinal stage on hot runs of form that saw them dispatch quality opposition en route to the Burridge Gym.
Despite their status as a preseason favourite, early struggles made the road to the playoffs difficult for Waterloo. But a 6-3 run in the New Year, which included a razor-close five-set loss to the Marauders in February, helped the Warriors cement their spot.
They responded by springing the upset on the East's top-seeded York Lions in the quarter-finals, besting the Lions over four sets in North York with the help of a colossal 26.5-point afternoon from opposite Braden Cok (Waterloo, Ont.).
Look for Cok to feature prominently once again Friday, as the Warriors workhorse ranked inside the top 10 in the conference in kills per set (3.41) and hitting percentage (.297).
He is spelled strongly on the left side by the duo of fourth-year veteran Aidan Simone (London, Ont.) and rookie Kevin Lebreux (Cumberland, Ont.), the younger of whom burst onto the OUA scene with a spin serve that yielded a total of 30 aces this season, ranking him third in the conference.
A traditional strength of the Warriors, the block remains stout for Waterloo, who finished third in the OUA with a team total of 158 blocks this season. Senior middle Jordan McConkey (Stratford, Ont.) ranked fourth in the conference with 62 of those, while rookie Matthew Mawdsley (London, Ont.) chipped in 58 to signal his long-term potential as a defensive stalwart for Waterloo.
Across the net, Guelph enters Friday's semifinal having won seven of their last eight matches, bouncing back from a string of three consecutive losses out of the holiday break to charge into the OUA playoffs.
They cleared their first playoff hurdle by snuffing out the Cinderella story of the Nipissing Lakers in the quarter-final round, besting the Lakers in four tight sets at the Gryphons Athletic Centre.
Third-year opposite Zach Newman (Kitchener, Ont.) was the star of that show with match highs of 20 kills and 51 attempts, and fans can expect Newman to see plenty of the ball Friday. He was Guelph's most used hitter this season, and finished second among Gryphons with 144 kills and an average of 2.53 kills per set.
But the main attraction will undoubtedly be middle Kendrick Kerr (Georgetown, Ont.), who did it all for Guelph in 2016-17. Kerr finished as the OUA's most efficient attacker, with a hitting percentage of 50.8, while finishing fifth in the conference with 61 blocks.
Manning the controls offensively, setter Samuel Kloke (Whitby, Ont.) has been dependable throughout the season, finishing fourth in the OUA with an average of 9.56 assists per set.
The Gryphons enter Friday's knockout encounter having swept both previous meetings with the Warriors in the regular season.
East #2 Ryerson Rams vs. West #1 McMaster Marauders
If the Ryerson Rams wish to return to the OUA final, they will need to do what no OUA team has managed this season and get the better of the McMaster Marauders.
Despite seeing the York Lions supplant them atop the OUA East standings down the stretch, the Rams earned a home quarter-final berth and turned it into an emotional rollercoaster at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.
Losing the first two sets to the Western Mustangs, the Rams looked to be in danger of a shocking exit from the postseason, before engineering a comeback to swing the result in five sets and clinch in bonus points in the deciding fifth.
Handling 45 per cent of Ryerson's total attempts in that match, outside Lucas Coleman (Brooklin, Ont.) thumped down 30 of a whopping 72 contacts for kills. Coleman stood second in the OUA with an average of 4.41 kills and 5.3 points per set in the regular season, and will need to be at his best if the Rams are to pull the upset Friday.
Spelling Coleman on the outside, senior Brendan Kewin (Milton, Ont.) finished the season second to his star teammate with 2.59 kills and three points per set, while serving as a distant second in usage.
Balance comes in the form of middle Uchenna Ofoha (Markham, Ont.), who led Ryerson and finished third in the OUA with 69 total blocks in 2016-17, while chipping in nearly two kills per set.
Orchestrating it all, former OUA Rookie of the Year Adam Anagnostopoulos (Waterloo, Ont.) remains one of the premier setters in the conference, and finished third among the conference's passers with an average of 9.61 assists per set this season.
Looking for their fifth straight title, which would tie the longest consecutive championship streak in Forsyth Trophy history, McMaster once again enters the Final Four as the class of the OUA, with a spotless 17-0 conference record.
The Marauders comfortably saw out the first step of their playoff journey with a quarter-final sweep of the Queen's Gaels at the Burridge Gym on Saturday afternoon.
Their bevy of attacking options was on full display in the win, as McMaster cruised despite an uncharacteristically tough hitting night for middle Danny Demyanenko (Toronto, Ont.). Outside Brandon Koppers (Georgetown, Ont.) led all hitters with 11 kills, while Andrew Richards (London, ON) chipped in eight, Jayson McCarthy added seven and Demyanenko made good on five.
That balance has kept the Marauders from the top of the statistical charts individually, but they stood as far and away the most efficient offence in the country this season, with a hitting average of .321 as a whole and a U SPORTS low of 212 errors.
Their suffocating pressure on opposing teams begins at the service line, where Mac led the conference with 114 aces in 2016-17. The OUA top five combination of Koppers and Demyanenko averaged 0.52 and 0.48 aces per set this season, sitting second and fourth in the conference respectively.
McMaster claimed the teams' only previous meeting this season, sweeping Ryerson in Toronto in February.