Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The manual on how to build an elite setter in Canada West includes a few chapters.
Technical, physical, mental and tactical, among others, are on the docket in the steep learning curve for promising setters coming out of high school.
Early in his second season with the MacEwan Griffins, Caleb Weiss is now on to the tactical section, showing flashes of the elite ability that caught head coach Brad Poplawski's eye when he recruited his Team Alberta standout two years ago.
"I think he's just so much more comfortable this year," said Poplawski. "We've been working on a lot of technical things with him – feet, hands, that stuff. We'll still work on that, but now that he's more comfortable with how he's setting on the technical side, we can do more tactical stuff.
"Having that experience playing in his first year really helped," he continued of Weiss, who split setting duties with Jonathan Mohler as a rookie last season. "I think we're seeing some natural progression from that where he's just more comfortable and he trusts himself to make the sets.
"Once you do have that experience, I think the game does slow down a bit for you. It doesn't seem as rushed."
The results have been palpable on the stats sheet and in the standings. The Griffins (2-2) are running perhaps their most creative and confident offence since joining Canada West in 2014 with Weiss, who is averaging 11.00 assists/set (second-best in the conference), setting the table.
"There's a new level of confidence with our team," said the Sherwood Park product. "Last year, we weren't necessarily in the right head space, I don't think, for many of the games. We weren't necessarily playing to win, whereas this year that's an expectation for us. We're going into every game expecting that we can and will win."
The Griffins will welcome Saskatchewan (0-2) for a pair of home games this weekend (Friday, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, 1:30 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).
Weiss is coming into the match off a monster assists game last weekend. In a 3-1 loss to Manitoba in Winnipeg last Saturday, he had 54 assists, tying for the third-most by a Griffins player in a Canada West match – just two shy of the school record of 56, set by Matthew Mohler in a five-set match against Calgary in 2017.
"His confidence as a setter is the biggest thing," said Poplawski. "Some of the things he's doing right now, I'm just really happy with choices. I'm happy with the way he's thinking the game and understanding the way we can play against an opponent.
"All those things that make the setting position hard – how can I take the hitters I have and put them in advantageous situations? I think he's doing that and I've liked his progression."
Weiss has logged many hours studying veteran Canada West setters as he transitions into that role himself. He's also been in the gym gaining muscle – "I've probably gained 10-15 pounds since this time last year; I'm feeling stronger this year" – which helps him make all the sets necessary to keep a defence guessing.
So, then it gets into the creativity part of the setter manual. And that's what fans and observers are seeing through the eye test – Weiss is putting the ball all over the court, leading to some solid kills numbers for Griffins hitters. Max Vriend is fourth in the conference in kills/set (4.00), while Kai Hesthammer (3.77) and Jordan Peters (3.62) are also in the top 10 in Canada West.
"It's been great. Brad's giving me a lot of freedom to do what I want to do with the offence," said Weiss. "He's not telling me exactly what to do. So, I'm able to be creative and try to get my hitters into the best possible situations."
Of course, great teams all work together and none of Weiss' success would be possible without strong passing numbers from MacEwan's defence.
"I think the first two weekends, we've passed pretty well," said Poplawski. "It's been a lot of float serves, it's been a different matchup the first two weeks. Saskatchewan, this weekend, has a few more spins, so they'll give us a different look. But I think our passing has, for the most part, been pretty good and that's given Caleb the ability to be able to run some stuff."
Where the mastering of the manual goes from here remains to be seen, but it's clear Weiss is on the path that Poplawski thought he could be on when he recruited him out of Strathcona Christian two years ago.
"We have had and still have big expectations for Caleb," he said. "He has a lot of potential. I'm seeing a little bit of that now.
"It's funny how much he's played and he's only going into the third week of his second year. That's part of where we're at in his development, but we're seeing some of the stuff when we recruited him that we hoped he could get to," he added.
"It's not like he's a finished product yet. But I'm really impressed with his development."