Marauders set sights on seventh straight title against loaded field of final four foes

Marauders set sights on seventh straight title against loaded field of final four foes

Kingston, Ont. – It’s down to four teams in the quest for the Forsyth Cup, and as the final crews get set to hit the courts in Kingston, all eyes will be on the only squad that has managed to conquer the monumental final four mountain over the last six years. Once again, the McMaster Marauders are coming into championship play as the highest-ranked OUA team, but with each of the remaining quartet also playing their way to national rankings at various points this season, this year’s banner will be well-contested this weekend.

The four teams who have earned a spot in this year’s final four are the aforementioned Marauders, the Windsor Lancers, the Toronto Varsity Blues, and the East Division champions – and host – Queen’s Gaels. And while each of the latter trio has the firepower to put an end to the maroon machine’s lengthy streak atop the conference’s volleyball elite, the conversation will once again start with the reigning champion Marauders when play gets underway.

Once again buoyed by the West Division Player of the Year, the Hamilton squad will unleash a loaded roster against the remaining field. Matt Passalent (Hamilton, Ont.) turned in an award-winning season behind his 5.0 points per set and .375 hitting percentage – despite missing the first half due to injury – and he will be joined by last year’s top player Andrew Richards (London, Ont.) to form one of the most potent one-two punches across the province. Together, they anchor a McMaster attack that connected on a second-ranked 12.22 kills per set and .284 hitting percentage, while racking up a league-high average of 16.4 points per set during their 15-2 season.

Despite losing some veterans from a year ago, the team boasts a bevy of veteran returnees at the forefront of their vaunted lineup. Alongside the team’s big two, are fellow senior outside hitters Nathan Delguidice (Cochrane, Ont.) and Craig Ireland (Beamsville, Ont.), who represent the latter half of the team’s 3.0+ point-per-set players. Beyond the unit’s proficiency offensively, however, they are also responsible up front at their respective positions, picking up 89 solo blocks on the year (2nd in OUA) and have dominated from the service line (1.95 aces per set; 2nd in OUA). These key marks are among the many that see Mac rank among Ontario’s top three teams, which should make them a handful for those looking to impede their quest for six straight titles.

The first team to have a crack at dethroning the nationally-ranked squad is another of Canada’s top seeds – the Lancers. This will be a repeat of both teams’ opening foyer at last year’s event, and while Windsor got off to a promising start in that one, it was Richards and the Marauders that bounced back after a first set loss to claim the four-set win and, eventually, play their way to a golden finish. But with another year of all-star play under their belts, the pair of Pierce Johnson (Chatham, Ont.) and John Moate (Oakville, Ont.) will aim to lead the Lancers on both sides of the ball for a shot at redemption.

After both players were once again recognized by the OUA for their on-court efforts, they will each look to put their dominance on display in their respective areas of strength. The former offers up one of the most dynamic offensive attacks in the game, as evidenced by his .319 hitting percentage (2nd in OUA), 3.75 kills per set (4th in OUA), and 268.5 total points (5th in OUA). The latter, meanwhile, is among the most menacing in the middle, as the reigning U SPORTS All-Canadian topped the league in blocks per set (1.17) and total blocks (70), while ranking fourth overall in solo blocks (22).

With this pair at the forefront of the team’s collective top ranks in hitting percentage and blocks per set, not to mention the valuable contributions of senior outside hitter Brad Gyemi (Tecumseh, Ont.), this veteran squad will undoubtedly be a handful for any opposition that crosses their path – including top-ranked McMaster.

While the aforementioned Marauders will head to Queen’s as the West Division’s top spot, it is their East Division counterpart and host Gaels that will look to be the ones to parlay their divisional prowess into a provincial title. The Kingston squad is the only other school aside from McMaster to claim the championship over the last 13 years, and despite falling to Mac in last year’s gold medal match (25-17, 25-15, 25-21), they are looking to take that final step this time around for their first banner since 2012.

They have the roster to do just that, boasting a diverse skillset that guides them to elite execution in several facets of the game, but much of their success stems from one of the best setters in the conference – Zane Grossinger (Richmond Hill, Ont.). The sophomore has returned from a Rookie of the Year season to once again anchor a Gaels offence that ranked first in total kills (871); aggressive efforts that wouldn’t happen without the team’s top-ranked 11.56 assists per set. Grossinger, himself, ranked second in Ontario with just under 10 assists per set, and among the many benefactors of his precision passing was Zac Hutcheson (Kingston, Ont.). The first-team all-star picked up a top-five mark of 3.64 kills per set, pouring in 266 on the year. And not only was he effective, but also efficient, with one of the best percentages in the league (.312; T3rd in OUA).

But they don’t just get it done at the net, as their advantage in points is often earned from the rally’s first strike. Their sizzling service game has them ranked atop the leaderboard in service aces (144) and per set average (1.97), with the likes of Adam Boljkovac (Edmonton, Alta.) and Joel Rudd (Cambridge, Ont.) joining the aforementioned pair of all-stars in the category to lead the Gaels. But whether their points are coming from the service, the net, or anything in between, the Tricolour will have the home crowd on their side as they navigate through the conference’s elite; a journey that will start against a team that hasn’t garnered much Final Four experience as of late.

For the first time since 2004, the Toronto Varsity Blues captured a postseason victory in their quarterfinal match with Western, and in doing so, have clinched a spot in the conference’s final weekend. They’ll kick off their return to the Final Four with the host Gaels, but after defeating the Mustangs in a five-set thriller, they’ll look to keep their foot on the gas pedal to push the home side to their limits in the banner season finale.

Like their fellow Final Four combatants, the Toronto squad is a diverse group that is able to not only keep points alive, but capitalize on them with a loaded lineup of veterans and newcomers. Among those who have been the best at finishing points of the Blues are Evgeny Osokin (Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia; 4.0 PTS/S), Evan Falardeau (Stratford, Ont.; 3.7 PTS/S), and Chris Towe (Toronto, Ont.;3.6 PTS/S), but much of the team’s success has come through the hands of setter Jordan Figueira (Oakville, Ont.).

Ranked third in the OUA in assists per set, the first-team all-star led the offence with precision in his third year, while also chipping in from the service line – with an average of 0.57 aces per set (2nd in OUA) – and in his ability to keep the rally going (128 digs; 5th in OUA). The setter’s spark plug type of play has been a catalyst for the Blues rising success this season, but the group as a whole has the ability to produce high-end results each time they take the court thanks to their top-five grades in kills per set, hitting percentage, assists per set, service aces, and digs per set. With an onslaught of ability like that, the team’s quarterfinal win might not be the only streak that the Blues are able to snap in their quest for a Forsyth Cup this weekend.

None of the remaining contenders will see smooth sailing toward those championship horizons, as McMaster, Windsor, Toronto, and Queen’s will all be in tough, but with such a high-quality quartet remaining, the winner may very well come down to who can best navigate the choppy waters ahead and put their full skill set on display when it matters most.

Fans can catch all the action LIVE on with the semifinals taking place on Saturday, March 9, with the host Queen’s Gaels battling the Toronto Varsity Blues at 1:00pm and the powerhouse McMaster Marauders taking on the Windsor Lancers at 3:00pm. The medal matches will wrap up play the following day, with bronze being doled out at 1:00pm and gold being decided in the championship match at 3:00pm at the Queen’s University ARC.