By Michael Mazzei
With the 2018-19 season just days away from getting underway, the Ryerson Rams men’s volleyball team is out to prove that they can build off of their disappointing ending last year and reach new heights.
Last season was a roller-coaster, with a few highs and lows that played a part in how the team performed. Despite finishing the regular season with an OUA East-leading 12-6 record, the team’s season was overshadowed by a mid-year controversy that saw 11 players and former coach, Adam Simac, suspended for a game against the Western Mustangs.
Despite having to deal with the issue, the Rams bounced back and were able to make the OUA playoffs.
During the knockout stages, the Rams were unable to earn a spot in the Forsyth Cup, losing in a heartbreaking contest to the Queen’s Gaels in the semi-finals. In the bronze medal game against the Windsor Lancers, with a chance to reach the U Sports Final 8 Championships, the Rams once again fell short and had their season end with another defeat.
For sophomore setter, Gregory Vukets, the loss in the bronze medal game was no doubt upsetting but he thinks it will also be a source of inspiration for this year.
“[It] was a game that I believe we should have won,” said Vukets. “I think we can channel that, and use it as motivation day in and day out this season. Especially for our returning players, I think it’s the fuel to our fire this year.”
With each new season sees changes to any team.
This year, the Rams are welcoming four new recruits in Xander Ketrzynski, Omari Young, Saad Shaikh and Trystan Morris-Fraser.
“[The upcoming players] seem driven, respectful, and eager to learn. It’s an exciting vibe,” said Vukets regarding the new arrivals. “I’m very excited to get everyone together so we can all start forming quality relationships, and grow on what we already have.”
Having lost star outside hitter Lucas Coleman to graduation, the Rams are looking forward to getting a significant contribution at the position. It also means that returning players such as Navreet Suhan and Riley Anderson will get increased responsibility and a larger role.
“The bulk of the roster will be filled with first-, second-, and third-year players,” said reigning U Sports Coach of the Year and Rams women’s volleyball head coach Dustin Reid. “That means energy, that means excitement, that means young talent. [But] they have to prove they can all work together.”
Jordan Baric, another outside hitter, is looking to gain a bigger role on the team and enters the season feeling good about himself and the Rams’ outlook.
“I think we made a nice comeback in the middle of the year, fighting off what everyone was saying about us and still managed to do well,” said Baric. “This year I feel all we have to do is play well and people will stop underestimating us.”
Culture Change/Looking Forward
Even though he’ll have a heavy load of expectations coming in, incoming head coach Matthew Harris is looking to change the culture of the team.
Harris, however, is currently on leave for personal reasons. Rams assistant coach, Niko Rukavina, will fill in as interim head coach to start the season.
Even though Harris won’t be present for the first face-off, the team still looking forward to working with the newly appointed bench boss.
Baric is one such player who is excited to work with the new bench-boss, having been coached by Harris—during his time as an assistant coach—four years ago.
“[Harris] is very wise and everything he tells you has a purpose. He’s made me who I am for the past four years.”
The off-court distractions that clouded over the team last season would seem difficult for a young team to handle. Reid mentioned that the distractions are part of being a varsity team and the players have to not let it fester them.
“This team will have its own personality and will need to build their own culture. Ultimately, the challenge is to focus on putting your energy into performing when you’re in the gym and leave all the distractions outside.”
The playoffs have also been a struggle recently with the team failing to reach the U SPORTS Championships since making it in 2016. For Vukets, one of the keys to making the season a success is embracing the hardships and then thriving.
“Being young and relatively inexperienced, adversity is bound to come. If we accept it, develop a thick skin and use it to our advantage with a no excuses attitude, I believe that we could be very successful.”
With the team reaching the postseason in each of the past six seasons, how they perform in the playoffs is going to be the true measuring stick of whether or not this season is a success. One of the biggest obstacles will be having to overcome McMaster, who has been the model team for quite a long time. And while he recognizes the team still has some work to do, Vukets believes the current core will be able to get the job done.
“I think that we have a lot of work to do and habits to develop, but we do have the talent and depth to make the Final Eight this year. We had one of the best recruiting classes in the country, and we have great competition for numerous positions”
Reid also expressed similar levels of optimism, saying the team has what it takes to put themselves in a position to succeed.
“I think if they play together and get themselves back to the OUA Final Four, they will be one win from going to nationals,” said Reid when addressing the potential of the team. “It’s difficult to say at this point to say if they can win that game just yet, but I certainly believe in the team’s ability to do all the things they can to get to that position.”
The Rams will open their season at the Mattamy Athletic Centre on Wednesday Oct. 24 against the Brock Badgers with first serve scheduled for 6:00 p.m.