Fifth-year veteran Kacey Otto tallied a game-high 13 kills, and the top-ranked Alberta Pandas opened their championship bid with a convincing 3-0 (25-23, 25-7, 25-12) victory over the tournament host Ryerson Rams in front of a boisterous crowd at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on Friday evening.
Otto finished the match with an impressive .591 hitting percentage and without any attack errors to her name while adding a team-best 10 digs, while U SPORTS Player of the Year Meg Casault added 10 kills and eight digs for the Pandas, who worked at a team efficiency of .330.
“I was really happy with our composure,” said Pandas coach Laurie Eisler. “I thought Ryerson really brought it in the first set and we were a little bit off. But we settled down when we needed to and just kept our momentum going as the match went.”
“We really found our serve (in the second and third set). And then our defence. It was a lot easier to play defence when they were out of their system. When (Ryerson) is in system, their spectacular, and it was really frustrating to keep the ball off the floor in the first set, but the serve came along in and the second and third.”
“It feels good to have that pressure (as the first seed),” said player of the game Mariah Walsh, who picked up 31 set assists and a pair of aces. “It’s an awesome environment and we were excited to play in (the Mattamy Athletic Centre). We definitely came out a bit shaky and were feeling it out at the start. I just hope to get better as the match goes on, and learn what the blockers are doing to help our offence get better. In a small way, peaking at the end of the match is something we want to do.”
The Rams were led by a seven kill performance from Veronica Livingston, who also tallied two digs and 1.5 blocks. Rookie Lauren Veltman added five kills and a pair of digs for Ryerson, who will move into the consolation side of the bracket on Saturday.
“I wasn’t thrilled that we couldn’t muster up more resilience,” said Rams coach Dustin Reid. “I think it’s a testament to Alberta’s strengths and especially when they are feeling comfortable. I would like to have seen more resilience in that moment. I think going into the match we felt like if we could play the way we could that we might generate a chance or two to win a set. And we put ourselves in that position in the first and couldn’t quite take advantage of the opportunities that were there.”
The teams traded the first 10 points of the match before Otto picked up back-to-back kills to put the Pandas in front by a pair. The hosts kept pace with the number 1 seed, however, as Jena Bonello (Vaughan, Ont.) followed up a kill with an ace to even the match 9-9. After the Rams moved in front at the technical break, Alberta railed off three-straight points, capped off with a big block from Otto that put the Canada West Champions up by one.
Theanna Vernon (Scarborough, Ont.) helped the Rams stay within a point of the Pandas, picking up a block and then a kill from the middle. Lauren Veltman (Brampton, Ont.) then grabbed back-to-back kills from the left side to even the set at 22-22. A timely ace from Vanessa Jarman, however, gave Alberta a set-point, and the Pandas used their reliable right-side hit to Shaunny Hogg (Calgary, Alta.) to clinch the opening set. Otto was the x-factor in the first, tallying seven kills and six digs for the Pandas.
“Her first national championship was her first year,” said Eisler of Otto. “She’s been there and done it (before). What’s most impressive was that some of those kills were quite creative, she used a full repertoire of shots and was really smart in her decision making”
Hogg began the second set with three-straight aces, powering her team to an early 4-0 lead. The Pandas would score three more times before Livingston got the Rams on the board. The Kelowna, B.C. native tallied an ace to bring her squad within four, but Alberta seemed to find its offensive stride in the set, recording four consecutive points that forced Rams coach Dustin Reid to take his second timeout before the technical.
Ryerson couldn’t find an answer for the Pandas, who blazed to a 25-7 set victory. Jarman (Edmonton, Alta.) and Casault picked up four kills each in the set for Alberta, who worked at a potent .435 hitting percentage while totalling just three errors in the second.
After the Rams took an early lead in the third, Alberta flexed its offensive muscle, jumping out to a three-point advantage. Casault (Edmonton) grabbed a pair of aces to push the lead up to six, and two more from setter Mariah Walsh (Calgary) took the Pandas into the technical up 16-6.
Alberta cruised from there to a straight-sets win, and will play the winner of Montreal and Dalhousie in the second semifinal of the evening on Saturday. Ryerson will take on the loser in the second consolation semi on Saturday afternoon.
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