Irwin leads the way as Martlets march past smaller Sherbrooke

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Going into Sunday afternoon’s match-up against the visiting Sherbrooke Vert et Or, Head Coach Rachel Beliveau stressed the importance of establishing a presence at the middle of the net as early as possible. Clearly, her players were listening. Sophomore middle Kaiva Mateus opened up the scoring in the first set with a thunderous solo block, and the McGill women’s volleyball team shut down the Sherbrooke offence en route to a convincing straight-set victory at Love Competition Hall.

Senior middle Kelsey Irwin was close to unstoppable, racking up 10 kills to go along with six solo blocks against a smaller and visibly overmatched Vert et Or squad.

“It was definitely part of our gameplan to go through the middle,” said Irwin. “With Sherbrooke that’s usually what we do. It was a good game by everyone and Kaiva [Mateus] and I did a pretty good job in the middle.”

McGill led 8-3 at the first technical timeout of the match, and only trailed in the opening moments of the third set. The Martlets held a 14-4 edge in total team blocks, and a 47-27 advantage in overall points. While Sherbrooke had little trouble handling the serve receive, the Vert et Or simply could not cope with the dominant Martlet defence.

“We’ve worked a lot on our blocking recently,” said Beliveau. “And the last two games we played this weekend we blocked way better than before. It’s good for us because it [makes things] a lot easier on the defence.”

While McGill’s back-row defence certainly benefited from the activity of the team’s middle blockers, they also proved themselves to be highly capable of covering ground and digging tough shots when need be. First-year libero Daphne-Maude Andre-Morin registered a match-leading 16 digs, while All-Canadian senior Jennifer Thomson notched a dozen in a relatively quiet performance. Beliveau believes that greater attention to blocking has also helped her team recognize the importance of proper court coverage, an area of the game that will play a key factor in determining the amount of success McGill has against more physically imposing teams in the future.

“We’ve worked hard on covering,” she said. “Today, we covered a lot of blocked balls, and we’re going to keep working on that. We’re training with a higher block now to prepare for [taller teams].”

For at least one day, though, the Martlets were more than happy to take advantage of being the bigger side. More than half of McGill’s attacks came out of the middle, and Beliveau made it clear that much of her team’s offensive success will hinge on Irwin’s productivity.

“Kelsey is a really good hitter, and when she’s on the front line she scores a lot of [points],” said Beliveau. “But to get to that, we need good passing or else we lose her as a hitter. Once we have the passing and the defence, we can use her well and [put her] in many different places where she becomes efficient.”

Perhaps the most noticeable bright spot from Sunday’s game, though, was the confidence and chemistry between Irwin and sophomore setter Marcela Mansure. Mansure dished out 23 assists for the match, to go along with successive back-set kills in the second set that elicited oohs and ahhs from the partisan crowd.

“[Masure and Irwin] are working much better together,” said Beliveau. “Their confidence is getting there.”

Irwin echoed her coach’s sentiments, noting the initial difficulties of adapting to a new setter.

“Marcela and I had to start the year off fresh. At first, obviously, it’s pretty tough with a new setter, but it’s been unreal. She’s a great setter and she’s been doing a great job with me and Kaiva [Mateus],” she said.

The Martlets have 12 days off before they head across town to take on the division-leading Montreal Carabins, and very little of that time will be spent basking in the glow of Sunday’s win.

“Montreal is a big hitting team,” said Irwin. “Our defence and our blocks have to be there, and honestly I think tonight was a good precursor to a couple weeks from now.”

McGill certainly has the pieces to challenge the top teams in the country, but the Martlets know that they must continue to work hard and improve if they wish to make a deep run in the postseason and at Nationals. McGill faces the Carabins on January 29, before returning home to welcome the Laval Rouge et Or on January 31. QSSF playoffs begin on February 11.