Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Walking into the War Memorial Gym at UBC on Nov. 28, 2015, Mark Ritter was certain he was playing the final match of his volleyball career.
Hampered by painful herniated discs in his back that forced the MacEwan Griffins left-side to try a position switch to libero – which only made the problem worse – he completed the four-set match, jumped on a plane bound for Edmonton and didn't touch a volleyball for the next year.
"I couldn't get out of bed for six weeks," he said. "I couldn't do any physical activity for six months."
Would he ever again play the sport he loved?
"The first six months where I couldn't do any physical activity at all, other than walking, I had no idea," he recounted.
"But over the past couple of years, I've found a way to deal with symptoms, what's going on, knowing when you're pushing it a little too much. It's been good ever since."
Ritter resumed a volleyball career he once thought was over by rejoining MacEwan this season – nearly three full calendar years after last wearing Griffins silks.
"I did a bunch of rehab and physio – pretty much everything just to get myself back into the shape where I could do physical activity anymore," he said. "So, I've just been super happy to be back playing again. It's been pretty cool."
Ritter, who will lead the Griffins (3-13) into action against Calgary (8-8) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m., both in David Atkinson Gym), has played in seven of MacEwan's last nine sets as he gets a larger opportunity due to injuries.
His first action this season came on Nov. 2 when he was sent in for one serve against Saskatchewan. That moment came 1,070 days after his last Canada West regular season match.
"There was a little bit of rust, some nerves there, but that's to be expected," he said. "I think once you start getting back into the rhythm of things, it gets a bit easier.
"I'm just happy to be out there, honestly. I felt I could appreciate the moment when I was out there, which was pretty cool."
Things will only get smoother for Ritter from here as he continues to get acclimated back to the level of Canada West competition.
"One semester to get back is still pretty quick," said Griffins head coach Brad Poplawski. "We knew it wouldn't be instantaneous that he'd be able to flip a switch.
"I think the fact he's been getting in shows he's been proving it in training and playing well. When he's been in, he's done a good job for us. He always brings energy. He can stabilize some things in our passing. I like what he's brought."
Ritter's journey back to the court didn't come easy. By the summer of 2016, the Westlock native had returned to his hometown to work a summer job at the golf course. His cousin recommended a physiotherapist in nearby Athabasca, who just happens to be the father of University of Alberta Golden Bears setter Max Elgert.
Ritter visited Greg Elgert all that summer and began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
"I think it was just his perspective because he has a volleyball background," he said. "There are certain movements with volleyball that affect the back in different ways and I think he really understood which movements were hindering my back and helped me get a better understanding of my injury. That really helped me out quite a bit. I haven't had any issues with it since."
Ritter and some of his MacEwan teammates from his previous stint in the program (2013-16) entered a Div. 1 team in Edmonton's men's league. And that's where he crossed paths with Poplawski.
"We won the league last year and we actually had a pretty good year, so I guess that kind of helped with my recruiting chances," he said.
The capper on his return to a MacEwan court was Griffins head athletic therapist Jennifer Dunn setting him up with a fitness routine – ("She started getting me to do Pilates and build up my core strength," he said. "That's really helped.")
Poplawski has loved the veteran leadership brought by Ritter, who first started his post-secondary volleyball career in 2012 at Red Deer College. He transferred to MacEwan for the Griffins' final season in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (2013-14), but an ankle injury forced him to redshirt for their first in Canada West (2014-15), so he still has another year of eligibility left after this season.
"Obviously, when you take that much time off, it takes a while to get back in just to get used to playing at this level," said Poplawski. "But Mark's been working hard, taking care of his body.
"He's almost like another coach out there in training because he's older and he has a lot of experience. Guys respond to him as well.
"For me, it's nice having a guy who's a little bit older and more mature. It's been good having him back this year. I've really enjoyed it."
Ritter, who is one of the last of his kind – a student-athlete who was around for MacEwan's ACAC and Canada West eras – brings a different perspective to a program trying to build a winning culture.
"When I was at Red Deer and at MacEwan, we had some very successful seasons in the ACAC. (Canada West) is a tough league. There's a lot of parity, but winning's a mentality," he explained. "If you get enough people on board with that mentality, it gets easier and easier.
"I think if those ACAC days taught me anything, it's just the mentality of how to win and how to keep yourself in a mindset where you're giving yourself the best chance to win.
"That's something they have to experience for themselves, too," he added. "It's hard to pass on through words. It's something you have to experience for yourself and I'm pretty confident with this group that we can get there."