Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Mark Alexander entered a crowded lineup of middles as a raw rookie out of Jasper Place high school in 2016.
After getting his feet wet with the MacEwan Griffins men's volleyball team as a freshman, he headed into the 2017-18 campaign stuck in a logjam on the depth chart behind guys like Max Vriend, Kornel Kowalewski and Jacob McIntyre.
Head coach Brad Poplawski had a solution for the late bloomer with raw potential. He proposed the idea of having Alexander redshirt in his second season to get stronger and prepared to become an impact player later in his university career.
It's a project that's now bearing fruit. Alexander is coming off his best game as a Griffin – a 10-kill effort in Saskatoon last Saturday that led the Griffins to a 3-0 win over Saskatchewan.
He will lead MacEwan (2-10) into home action against UBC (9-3) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).
"I think the potential was there, but it was extremely raw potential," said Poplawski of the lanky 6-foot-7 prospect who helped Jasper Place win a 4A high school provincial championship in his Grade 12 season. "We actually a lot of depth his second year where he would have been the fifth middle, so we talked him into redshirting that year. His plan was to just get strong.
"We had a plan for him and I think he took it the right way, really invested in himself the year that he red-shirted. He's fourth year age but only in his third year of eligibility, so it's been a good thing for our team but I think for him as well."
Alexander noted he's put on about 25 pounds since his first university season and has improved numbers across the board from the workout regimen he adopted that redshirt campaign.
"There's no coincidence there, right? You work out and get stronger, you can jump higher," he said.
That's led to this moment where he's showing signs of becoming the impact player Poplawski envisioned back in that 2017 meeting.
"Now I'm only in my third year of eligibility and I'm doing all these things he was foreseeing in the future," said Alexander. "I'm glad that it is happening. He's predicted the future here. He said 'you're going to be a better player' and now here I am a better player.
"I still have a lot of time left – all of this year and two more years after this to continue to work and continue to get better and continue to bloom in all the different things he's looking for me to do."
Nevertheless, his big game last Saturday – which not only included timely kills and blocks but also opened up the rest of MacEwan's offence – is a great jumping off point to bigger and better things.
"I went straight from redshirting to starting, so now it's the complete opposite," said Alexander. "Now I have the experience, what it's like to be on the court and have that mentality. Nothing's a surprise anymore. I know what I'm up against and I know how to deal with it."
So, it's a matter of moving forward after his breakout game, which he has all the tools – physical, mental and tactical – to do.
"At this level, especially in the middle, you've got to be big and physical and there's a big strength component to it that guys coming from high school need to learn," said Poplawski. "That's helped him a little bit. Now what I want to see from him is the repeatability. He had a good game, but can we build on that? I don't want that to just be a highlight, I want him to continue to improve and be that guy we can trust in important situations.
"We set him at 23-22 against Sask in the third set and he absolutely crushed it and set up match point for us. That to me, is something we haven't had in a long time – on an important play we can go to our middle and trust he'll get the job done."
Alexander credited the vision of rookie setter Thomas Watchman for Saturday's game and notes continued chemistry with him will lead to that repeatability his coach is talking about.
"I think in terms of repeatability, it's still having that trust with Tommy and doing it a lot in practice," he said. "Confidence is a big thing for me. Tom obviously had confidence in me (on Saturday) that I could put it away."
MacEwan will need everything in its arsenal this weekend as the red-hot Thunderbirds – owners of an eight-game winning streak – pay a visit. Led by arguably the hardest server in Canada West, conference aces leader Coltyn Liu, and solid blocking, they are solid across the board.
"I think I always say it, but we can't try to play their style of ball," said Poplawski. "They do things different than we do, obviously, so we have to do the things we know we can do.
"For us, it's all going to start from the baseline. We have to serve tough to keep them out of system and we have to pass the ball well. If we're out of system a lot, they're such a good blocking team that … we have to do a really good job with our first contact and our pass."