Duckworth unchallenged

- February 2nd, 2012

For drama, aesthetics and edge-of-seat thrills, the latest leg of the Duckworth Challenge scored about a 2 on a scale of 1-100.

But style points are of little regard for the Winnipeg Wesmen women’s and Manitoba Bisons men’s volleyball teams, who both scored straight-sets victories Wednesday at the Duckworth Centre, results that nevertheless allowed U of M to win the Duckworth Challenge rivalry series for the third straight year.

(MORE: “More in store for Wesmen Sears in playoffs”)

The most important fact that came out of Wednesday’s action was what the win meant for the Wesmen. U of W, now 13-6, officially clinched a hosting berth by moving four wins up on fifth-place Manitoba with the Bisons only having three matches to play, including Saturday’s U of W season finale at the IGAC. So the Wesmen know where they’ll play, but they don’t know where they’ll end up.

If the post-season started today, the best-of-three first-round series would be at Duckworth with the Bisons making the crosstown drive. But the “if-the-post-season-started-today” line is one of the most ridiculously common-used phrases in sports because, as we all know, the post-season won’t start today. Odds appear to be on Winnipeg staying in fourth, even with a victory Saturday. However, should the Wesmen get that win, the onus would be on Alberta (now 11-5) to win at least three of its last four (vs Regina, at Brandon) and let the sets won/lost tiebreaker do its thing from there. Winnipeg is currently +15, Alberta +14.

As the kids say: Whatever.

What matters is the Wesmen are back in the post-season for the first time since 2005-06 and hosting for the first time since 04-05.

And the way they did it was convincing. Manitoba’s only life came in the early portions of the second set when the Bisons took a 16-11 lead into the technical timeout. The Wesmen, however, won the next seven points, the Bisons countered to eventually pull even at 20, only to watch U of W win five of the next seven and take the set.

It would be dangerous to take this match as a true indication of how far ahead or behind one of these teams is over the other, especially with Saturday’s rematch at U of M looming. Still, I was as cautious about the Wesmen as anyone and quite simply this was their most thorough, impressive win since a sweep of Calgary back on Nov. 10. The Wesmen love their home floor — they are now 8-2 there with the losses coming to No. 1 UBC — so they’ll most certainly be happy to be on it when the post-season starts in a couple of weeks. After Saturday’s work is done, they’ll sit back and see who’s coming to them.

• • •

For the Bison women, there is less certainty.

Manitoba, now 9-8, could mathematically get into the top four but that would require a three-match win streak coupled with an Alberta four-match losing streak to close the season. So let’s just go ahead and say it: the Bisons are on the road for playoffs.

But they’ll undoubtedly be cheering for any scenario that keeps Winnipeg in fourth and themselves in fifth to make the road trip less onerous. (Unless they fancy the match-up with the Pandas, whom Manitoba beat in four and lost in five to this season). Sixth-place Calgary is only a half-match back of Manitoba and 8-8 Brandon is there as well, although a big move up the standings for the Bobcats is unlikely considering they close the season at UBC, vs Alberta. The Bisons will get to at least 11 wins (the season-ending series with Saskatchewan are two W’s). It’s just a matter of if that puts them in fifth or sixth.

To be fair, this is not the juggernaut Bisons team of years past, but they’re still pretty darn good. With Tricia Mayba in the middle and the heavy arm of Kristi Hunter on the outside, the Bisons have a chance to beat almost anyone. And Wednesday’s match was not who they are. Or maybe it is. After all, they’re a young group and in the loss they played many stretches like a young team would. Winnipeg was lights out for the most part and the Bisons unravelled quickly.

I don’t think Winnipeg is “-11, -22, -18″ better than Manitoba and I think you’ll see something a bit more realistic Saturday night.

What was blatantly clear Wednesday, however, was the Wesmen were fired up to once again be throwing real punches in this long-running rivalry.

• • •

As for the men, a 3-0 (25-18, 25-20, 25-23) Manitoba win was far from surprising and it stood as Winnipeg’s fourth loss of the past five matches.

It also kept Winnipeg’s playoff chances in limbo with the Wesmen (7-12) two wins up on UBC-Okanagan (5-11) for seventh and the Heat holding three matches in hand. While on the surface that may seem like not such a bad deal for the Heat (as far as chasers go, it could be worse), the Wesmen are still very much on the inside lane for the final spot. Barring an upset on Saturday, the Wesmen will finish with seven wins and UBCO will have to do work to get in. How much? Let’s look:

Assuming, for math and argument, that Winnipeg gets swept Saturday, the Wesmen’s sets won/lost ratio would finish at 29/45 for -16. With UBCO currently at 18/39, -21, even two Heat sweeps this weekend at Saskatchewan would not give them the boost they’d need mathematically to pass Winnipeg without another win after that. IF the Heat went 2-2, their best-case scenario (two sweeps, two five-set losses) would put them at -17.

So Winnipeg is in with a win and a UBCO loss, or two UBCO losses.

(Note: There exists a scenario (other than UBCO losing twice this weekend) for Winnipeg to clinch on Saturday that absolutely no one other than myself cares to even think about or entertain. Suffice to say, Winnipeg taking a set off Manitoba combined with a Saskatchewan sweep of UBCO on Friday would leave the Heat all but eliminated. In that case, UBCO would then need to sweep its final three matches of the season to pull even with U of W in sets won/lost and push it to a second tiebreaker, which is points for/against, a statistic that Winnipeg currently leads -63 to -129. Let’s just pretend I never brought this up.)

• • •

The Bisons, meanwhile, seem destined to finish in second place. They’ll only move out of second if one of these situations arises:

• Move up to first if there’s a hiccup from Trinity Western in any of its final four matches (at Calgary, vs UBC) and the sets won/lost add up. Unlikely but absolutely not out of the question.

• Move to third if they somehow manage to vomit all over themselves and lose their final three matches while Alberta wins its final four.

So all those words and the most interesting point is this: The unlikely scenario of all four Winnipeg-based volleyball teams playing post-season series in their hometown remains very much at play.

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Twitter: @LarkinsWSun

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