The Paul Kane Blues embraced a rare loss in high school men’s volleyball with open arms.
Wednesday’s five-set setback to the Salisbury Sabres, a team slotted below Paul Kane in the metro Edmonton division one standings and 4A provincial rankings, was greeted with renewed purpose for the upcoming playoffs.
“This is a really good loss for sure at a really good time,” said head coach Ben Grabia of the 6-2 Blues in league play and 21-7 overall. “We’re not unstoppable. We need to find more stuff in our game to help us come over these adversities.”
The 25-21, 23-25, 25-20, 22-25, 11-15 result in the last home match before the playoffs was a jolting reminder Paul Kane still has work to do as championship contenders and provincial hopefuls.
“We learned a few things out of this game,” said libero Adam Olsen. “We’ve just got to focus up and give it our all.”
Salisbury (5-3) was riding the wave of momentum from its third-place finish at the 26th annual Panthers International Tournament last weekend in Spruce Grove while Paul Kane was trying to regain its form from the last league match Oct. 7, 40-38, 25-21, 25-20 over the Jasper Place Rebels (2-5), the 2018 champions and 4A provincial gold medallists.
“We went out of the Thanksgiving break without doing much so (Tuesday’s) practice was a little bit sluggish and we came out sluggish today," Grabia said. "They had just played a big tournament this weekend so they were really coming in feeling pretty confident in themselves.
"They’re a good team. They gave us a good fight.”
Paul Kane also relied way too much on its top gunner, Bryce Neuls, to pound out the points when things got dicey while Salisbury spread out its hitting attack with consistency against a skitterish defence.
“Our biggest strengths became our biggest weaknesses and we struggled with making errors at the wrong times. That was pretty much the game,” Grabia said.
The one hour and 53 minute match started with Paul Kane falling behind early in the first set as Salisbury generated a couple of four-point runs before a late surge of six unanswered points capped off the comeback as Cole Seguin’s hitting and the net presence of Rhees Moss pushed the Blues ahead to stay.
In the next set, the longest point run in the back-and-forth struggle was four by Paul Kane to knot it at 16. However, Salisbury overcame a 22-20 deficit with three straight and closed it out with a pair after a serve into the net by the visitors gave the Blues the tying point at 23.
Early in the third set, a slew of smashing points by Neuls lifted Paul Kane into a quick 10-4 lead. The sure-handed setting by Moss, timely hits and steady serving by Milan Ogar and Seguin’s contributions from the middle forced Salisbury to play catch-up the rest of the way. Another bright spot was Connor Wanhella’s block to make it 24-20.
Salisbury grabbed control of the fourth set with four straight points for the 13-8 lead and widened the gap to 17-11 and then 23-16 while Paul Kane chipped away at the disadvantage as Neuls rattled off a number of heavy hits for points that included a killer shot that barely stayed in bounds to pull the Blues to within one at 23-22.
The deciding set was 7-4 for Paul Kane, with three points registered by Neuls, before Salisbury rallied with five in a row that included a block on Seguin and a hit by Neuls into the net.
Miscues by the Blues led to three unanswered points as Salisbury strengthened its lead at 12-8.
The Blues kept feeding Neuls the ball and his last point of the match cut the deficit to 13-11 as Salisbury called a time out to regroup before sealing the deal.
“They fought hard, we fought hard and ultimately they came out on top,” Olsen said.
As for Salisbury’s ability to produce points with regularity, “Their hitting was quite good. They were really hitting their shots when they needed to and hitting the corners that we weren’t at,” Olsen added.
Fifth in 4A
The loss against a potential playoff opponent followed the release of the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association’s second 4A rankings of the season as Paul Kane dropped from second to fifth and Salisbury remained an honorable mention.
Slotted ahead of Paul Kane, from first to fourth, are the Lindsay Thurber Raiders of Red Deer, Harry Ainlay Titans and the William Aberhart Orange and Western Canada Redhawks of Calgary.
The last loss for Paul Kane in league play after five consecutive wins was 25-20, 24-26, 15-25, 22-25 to Ainlay (7-0) at Paul Kane.
Also ranked top 10 from the metro league are the No. 6 Strathcona Lords (6-2) and No. 8 Edmonton Christian Lions (5-3) while the Archbishop Jordan Scots (5-3) and Rebels are honourable mentions.
“(The rankings) are based on other teams and they're doing well too so credit where credit is due. They’re doing better, but overall we're second right now for Edmonton in the province,” said Olsen, one of nine Grade 12s on the roster and is among five returning players from last year’s 2-8 non-playoff team.
“It's nice that all of us are coming together, especially coming into the home stretch with playoffs and provincials. We're really pushing hard and we can do really good if we keep going. It’s all about who can have the most energy going into those games so at practices we're working as hard as we can in order to do that,” said Olsen, 17.
The Blues haven’t shown this much promise since the 2016 division two championship team.
“It’s definitely been the best season in Paul Kane school history for men's volleyball,” said Grabia, the team’s second-year bench boss and former player who also coaches midget AA baseball in St. Albert. "With the talent we have we still have to find another gear to go through the playoffs."
This weekend Paul Kane is competing at the Hunting Hills Lightning tournament in Red Deer with matches scheduled in pool play against the division two Archbishop Macdonald Marauders, Chestermere Lakers, Notre Dame Cougars of Red Deer, ranked ninth in 4A, and the host team.
“We want to regain our mojo, get guys good floor time and try and compete against some of the best teams in Alberta at that tournament,” said Grabia of Paul Kane’s fourth tournament as the winner of the 10th annual Boom Volleyball Classic at St. Francis Xavier High School.
League play ends Monday against the Scots at 5:30 p.m. at Sherwood Park before the playoffs start Oct. 28. The semifinals are Oct. 30 and the final is Nov. 6 at 7 p.m. at Strathcona High School.
Provincials are Nov. 21 to 23 at Jasper Place.