Rams run through Paladins in preseason opener

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By Mitchell Fox

The Rams men’s volleyball won an intense three-setter against the Royal Military College Paladins Wednesday night at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, propelling them into the next round of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Forsyth Cup Playoffs.

The Rams took the game in straight sets, bouncing back from a nail-biting first set with two dominant sets filled with powerful hits and well-timed blocks. 

Much of the game’s intensity came from a loud home crowd and two energetic benches. Rams interim head coach Niko Rukavina said the crowd was important to the team’s ability to bounce back.

“That’s why we wanted to win that last season game, so we could host here,” he said.

The match started off with the Rams going down early thanks to some powerful serves and kills from the Paladins.

However, the barn-burner of a set finished 30-28 for the Rams, thanks in large part to what Rukavina called a “TSN turning point.”

On the verge of losing the set, the Rams came up with back-to-back blocks to keep the game alive at 27-26, then taking the lead 28-27.

The first block was supplied by veteran setter Saad Shaikh, who said after the game he knew he had to come up with a big for the team.

“That’s what I do – I make big plays. I knew I was gonna make a big play – ace, block, dig, whatever. It just happened,” said Shaikh. 

Rukavina has coached Shaikh for some time, including for a club team.

“Honestly I can’t say enough about Saad,” he said. “He just does so much for our team and it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. The leadership, the calm demeanor, the way he leads guys on and off the court.”

“I just want Saad to get more credit for what he does for our team and his leadership on and off the court,” he said.

The Rams used the momentum of the first set comeback to turn the tide of the game early in the second, going up 5-0 and forcing an early timeout from the Paladins. 

The Rams took the second set 25-16 thanks to some big hits from outside hitter Jacob Walker.

Walker would finish with a game-high of 14 kills.

The Rams were similarly dominant in the third, using kills from Walker en route to a 25-17 victory in the set.

Shaikh said the key to the game was the team’s mindset coming in.

“ It wasn’t gonna be a cakewalk, we knew that,” said Shaikh. “In the hallway when we talked pre-game, we knew it was gonna be a war – we were expecting a five-setter.”

Shaikh added that the team came into the game knowing it would be tough and just took care of business. 

“Everyone did it to the best of their ability,” said Shaikh. “We served tough, we passed well, block defense was on point—we just did our job [and] took care of business.”

Rukavina said the bench did “a good job of staying energetic,”  which was important to the team’s recent four-game winning streak.

“I know there’s a lot of joy and energy on the court,” he said. “I think they’re just really excited to be in a playoff run. And I’m excited to see where they go.”

Rukavina said the team might be coming into Saturday’s matchup with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues as an underdog, but they are confident and excited.

“I dont think a lot of the teams or people in the OUA think we have a chance to go for a playoff run, except for the guys on our team. So that’s all that matters,” Rukavina said.

UP NEXT: The Rams take on the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in the OUA East semifinal at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday.

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