By Amit Shilton
Like a helicopter gunner, Szymon Wierdak is mercilessly firing balls over the net. Wierdak, the volleyball team’s shortest player, is standing on a folding table while rookie Norwegian import Igor Marszalek desperately tries to block him from the other side. The libero tosses the ball into the air, cracks a smile and before thumping the ball snarls, “Welcome to Canada.”
Marszalek, who played for both the Norwegian junior and senior national teams, is one of Rams head coach Mirek Porosa’s latest recruits from the European talent pool. With the level of competition rapidly increasing in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) league, Porosa says he has to look abroad for players to keep his team higher in the standings.
“There’s not enough talent in Ontario who have provincial or national experience,” said Porosa, a former setter on the Polish national team and winner of the 2005-06 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) coach of the year award. “I have to be creative.”
Over the last couple of years, Porosa has transformed the Rams into a European powerhouse. Recruiting players from international volleyball schools where they spend a significant amount of time training, gives Porosa an edge over the competition.
Even those who don’t have a European background are doing their best to fit in. At a recent practice Mark Spehr, one of the team’s veterans, was encouraging Marszalek, playfully barking at him in Polish.
“There’s always that feeling of knowing there’s someone else of your background. It makes you feel warm inside,” said Wierdak.
While Porosa’s international recruiting has been working for him, it’s certainly not popular around the province.
York University coach Wally Dyba said he’d rather spend his time being aware of and recruiting the talent available within the province rather than worry about what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic.
Dave Preston, the men’s volleyball coach and athletic program co-ordinator at McMaster University, says he agrees with Dyba’s recruiting philosophy. He also said that he doesn’t have a big enough budget to be able to scout abroad.
“There’s good players regardless of where you look,” said Preston, who added that overseas players have contacted him in the past. “I don’t think we’ve exhausted the talent pool in Canada.”
Porosa admits that his past experiences helped him with his recruiting. He explains that he had to spend time developing his contacts, understanding the European volleyball system, making financial commitments and being ballsy enough to wade into uncharted waters.
“It just looks like I’m doing the right things,” he said. He says that recruiting isn’t a part-time job, and that he is constantly either e-mailing potential players about the Rams’ success or developing contacts across the world.
The biggest reason Preston thinks volleyball players are eager to come play in Canada is the country’s education system. Unlike other countries, he said that Canada has one of the best models in combining both varsity sports and academics when developing student-athletes.
“If they’re serious student-athletes, this is the place to do it,” he said.
Having the option to both study at a university and play for a competitive team is what drew Marszalek to Ryerson. He says that in Norway he would have to choose between playing professionally and focusing on his studies.
But Porosa believes that when players come to the university, their biggest priority is finding a team that can win. He estimates that 70 per cent of the athletes are looking to play for a competitive team while the rest are interested in earning a good degree.
“It’s my job to change their mind that a degree is equally important,” he said.
Having players mostly from European countries isn’t as big a focus for Porosa. He says that he’s more concerned with surrounding players that have the same passion for the sport as the rest of the team. He says this leads to better team-building which in turn results in athlete’s higher grades.
“They’re coming here and they love it.”