By Bryan Meler
Becky Zeeman was one of her team’s top players when the Queen’s Gaels won their first Ontario University Athletics (OUA) women’s volleyball championship in 2012. Last year, she watched from the bench as an assistant coach while Ryerson’s women’s volleyball squad came within one win of accomplishing the same feat. This year, she has the chance to do both.
At 26 years old, Zeeman is a student-athlete once again, taking on the rare dual role of a player and coach. She’s using her fifth and final year of university eligibility to join the Rams on the court in their quest for provincial and national greatness.
Ryerson made the OUA final last season, but lost to the University of Toronto in the gold medal game. This year, they’re looking to claim the OUA championship before hosting the U Sports national tournament in March. It will be the team’s first national tournament appearance since 2002, and the Rams are hoping to win the school’s first-ever national championship in front of their home fans, with Zeeman on the court.
“Being on the bench last year coaching, it’s my dream … but I just missed being on the court so much,” said Zeeman. “I talked to [head coach] Dustin [Reid], talked to my husband about what he thought, and I just decided, ‘Why not? I’m young enough, I still love the game.’
“I thought I could give more to the team, and I thought it could really be a fun year to do it.”
Zeeman has provided the Rams with another leader and plenty of experience. She spent four years as an outside hitter for Queen’s University from 2008 to 2012, earning OUA second-team all-star status in her final season. She went on to play professional volleyball for another two years in Germany.
To become an eligible player on Ryerson’s roster, Zeeman had to enrol in at least three courses. She’s currently taking classes in nutrition, philosophy and sociology. Returning as a player has also meant taking a step back in her capacity as an assistant coach. She doesn’t help run practices and lead film sessions like she did in the past. Instead, head coach Dustin Reid has helped her adjust to a player- only role whenever they’re in a team atmosphere, while consulting with her as a coach in other settings.
“Her being an assistant coach is not something she’s espousing to the players or anyone else when we’re together,” said Reid. “But with the amount of work we need to do to be an elite team—which we’re trying to be with our preparation, our recruiting, and our leadership development— she’s definitely continued to be a big help to our team behind the scenes.”
Reid and Zeeman first started to form a working relationship at a volleyball camp in Palmer Rapids, Ont. When she came back from playing in Europe, Zeeman took a position as the full-time assistant coach for the Ryerson women’s team. Reid was in the process of assuming head coaching duties for both the men’s and women’s volleyball teams, making Zeeman’s role with the women even more important to their run to the OUA final.
“The work she did last year was astounding,” said Reid. “She was a really great addition to our program.”
Zeeman says it’s still a bit of a struggle to constantly switch between a player and coach mindset, but she makes sure to stay focused on what she can do to help the team win in whatever role she’s filling. She also believes that her experience as a coach will help her on the court this year.
“Hours and hours of watching our own tape and watching other teams, I just see the game in a different way than when I was back at Queen’s or overseas,” said Zeeman. “The game slows down and you can go back in time, you can pause it, and you can really dissect what other teams and [you] are doing with positioning or technique in a moment.”
“It really helps to look at the game in a different way, and it’s also helped me develop as a player.”
Over the summer, when Zeeman was getting ready to make her return as a player, she was worried there would be hurdles to overcome, especially when it came to playing time. But, thanks to the support of her teammates, she said her transition has been “seamless”. At the same time, the team has stayed focused on having their best possible line-up on the court at all times.
“We’ve all been handling it really well, and I know if I’m not playing my best I shouldn’t be on the court,” said Zeeman. “Dustin has been doing a great job, while we continue to get stronger and rely on each other as teammates.”
Zeeman has shown little rust since returning to the court for Ryerson. The team got off to a slow start this year, dropping their first two matches. But the Rams made a statement with a 3-0 win on the road against Queen’s in their third match of the year, with Zeeman posting a team-high 14 kills against her old squad. Heading into their Nov. 19 match against Windsor, Ryerson is undefeated in three contests since facing Queen’s, and hasn’t lost a single set in that span. Zeeman, meanwhile, has the 10th-best hitting percentage in the OUA, and is one of only two Ryerson players to appear in all 19 of the team’s sets so far.
“For her to bring her energy and her wisdom on the court has been incredible,” said fourth-year setter Haroula Giovanopoulos. “We admire her so much as a player and not just as a coach, so this year we can all go to her and ask for help, for technique, and things we can do to improve on our game on the court as well.”
“She doesn’t take it upon herself to run a drill, but it doesn’t stop people from coming up to her and asking for advice.”