Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – In a transition that's been four years in the making, the MacEwan Griffins men's volleyball squad will unleash 6-foot-8 Max Vriend on the right side this season.
The potential with his size and leaping ability is obvious as the veteran fourth-year Barrhead, AB product – who was often a game-changer in the middle for MacEwan in his first three years – will get a chance to swing for the fences in volleyball's glamour kills position.
Vriend will lead the Griffins into their 2018-19 Canada West home opener on Friday when they welcome the UBC-Okanagan Heat (7:30 p.m.). The teams will also meet on Saturday (6:30 p.m., both games in David Atkinson Gym).
"He's just an important piece for our team. He can carry a lot of offence," said MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "He's our captain, he's our leader and that's off the court, as well. He's one of our hardest-working guys in the gym and in practice he's working hard, he's mentoring guys, he's sharing information. He checks all those boxes.
"He's a big guy that jumps well and has a good arm. It's a guy you want to invest in and get him the ball a little bit more if you can."
And that's just it. At the heart of Vriend's move to the right side is about getting him more volume. Keeping your best player on the court more often makes so much sense.
"When we recruited him, it was something we'd talked about," said Poplawski. "So, we kind of started that process over his four years where he was just a middle, then he evolved into also hitting the back-row ball, so he was a five rotation player. This year is the next step in that – being a full six rotation guy.
"In this league, you need a guy who can solve some problems," he continued. "He's a big guy that can hit a high ball and be a good blocker. This is a way to get him some more volume because in the middle, if you're not passing well, your middle can do a full rotation across the front and not even touch a ball. It gets him a little bit more involved in our offence, gives us a different look and I think it expands his skill-set, too."
Vriend prepared for the change by leaning on some of the wisest volleyball minds in the country, asking questions when he attended a tryout camp for Team Canada's Senior B team last May in Gatineau, Que.
"The one thing I did ask them is if I switch positions this year, what's one thing I should focus on?" said Vriend. "They said running speed, fast to the outside. So that's something we've been working on quite a bit in training.
"It's running the outside set fast. That's (accomplished) in training," he added. "Then definitely getting stronger. All those guys are strong, if you look at the Senior A team."
The two-time Canadian junior national team member (2016-17) didn't make the cut at the camp (only six of 53 players did), but the experience was invaluable to his growth, not only on the court, but in the gym, as well.
Since kicking off his university career in 2015, Vriend has gained 30-35 pounds of muscle as he continues to learn how the best train, including from Griffins assistant coach Mike DeRocco, a former national team and pro player.
"I'm definitely jumping higher, but one thing I've really noticed is the consistency of jumping higher," he explained of the results of his gym work. "I jump higher than I did in my first year, but the difference between my max jump in my first year and this year is not as big as the difference between my consistent jump in my first year to this year."
Or in layman's terms?
"I'll last longer jumping in games now than I did before."
That's good news for a Griffins team that will be leaning on their big man after losing a team-leading 207 kills when Ryan Zachary didn't return. With Vriend on the right, veterans Kai Hesthammer and Jordan Peters on the left, setters Caleb Weiss and Jonathan Mohler another year older and wiser and new potential game-changing Aussie libero David Morgan, the Griffins can make some noise this season.
"I like our group, we work hard," said Poplawski. "We know every weekend is going to be really, really tough. We need to work with our sports psych on our goals, team goals and individual things.
"Right now, we're just focused on Friday, to be honest with you. We're trying to play UBCO tough. They're a very good team. We have a lot of team goals that we talk about, but really right now everything's just about being ready for Friday."