By Tom McCabe
There are plenty of reasons why the Ryerson Rams men’s volleyball team should be optimistic while heading into the 2019-2020 season.
The Rams open the year against the Toronto Varsity Blues on Oct. 26 with a solid core of returning players, an elite level transfer player and a group of rookie recruits.
With head coach Matt Harris back on the bench after a one-year absence, the team is primed for a strong regular season and a potential trip to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Final Four.
A 12-6 record last season meant a second-place finish in the OUA East conference, though their season ended in a gut-wrenching five-set loss to the Windsor Lancers.
Overall, it was a successful season that offered a glimpse of what this year could bring.
“We’re a much more veteran team than last year,” said team captain and third-year middle Navreet Suhan. “I think last year we were a bit lost because we had a lot of first and second-year guys playing. Now those guys are progressing into second and third-year guys, so it’s definitely a stronger veteran group.”
Suhan, along with setter-turned-left side Greg Vukets, highlights a dynamic crop of returning players now in their third year.
Vukets, an extremely well-rounded player, will make the full-time transition to the left side this season, adding some needed ball control to the second left-side spot. Vukets highlights physicality as another strength that will aid the Rams this year.
“We’re big and we hit the ball hard,” said the New Zealand native. “We have some serious firepower.”
Much of that firepower will come from last year’s U SPORTS rookie of the year and OUA East Player of the Year, Xander Ketrzynski. As a rookie outside hitter, Ketrzynski led the country in kills and kills per set while hitting an impressive .303% on the season. He also led the OUA in aces and points per set while breaking the Rams men’s volleyball record for kills in a single match with 33.
With a majority of the team’s offence running through Ketrzynski last season, the addition of outside Taryq Sani, a fourth-year transfer from the University of Alberta, will create an elite one-two punch for Harris and the Rams this season.
Sani comes to Ryerson after playing in some big matches for the Golden Bears, having made three appearances in the U SPORTS championship tournament. He has also represented Canada as a member of the junior national team.
“We’re really excited to welcome Taryq to our campus and to our team. He’s an athletic player with a lot of U SPORTS experience,” said Harris. “His ability to attack at both antennas provides us with some flexibility and the ability to move him and Xander around depending on what we need out of them. Plus, his ability to attack out of the back row is really special.”
Leaning on the experience and talent of players like Suhan in the middle, Sani and Vukets on the outside and Ketrzynski on the right side will allow other players to focus on their respective roles to help contribute to the team’s success.
Perhaps the best example is the setter position, where Harris currently has three unique options to plug into his lineup.
“When I create lineups, I always want to get the best out of players skill sets. Having three-setters where we can use them in situations to maximize their strengths is something that is going to be a valuable tool throughout the year,” said Harris.
The two setters that will likely see the majority of court time initially are second-year Saad Shaikh, who mostly came in off the bench last season behind Vukets and rookie Trent Ketrzynski, Xander’s younger brother.
Shaikh will be relied on to bring steady play and competitive fire to the floor, while Ketrzynski will use his blocking ability and strong serve if Harris opts for a more physical lineup. The third option is second-year Lhexen Rabit, though he will likely also see reps at the libero position alongside Jordan Baric.
Harris admits it may seem unconventional to take this approach with his setters, but says it sticks to his overall philosophy of utilizing each player’s skillset.
In the second middle position, Harris has the option to go a bit smaller but more athletic with someone like Omari Young. Harris can also utilize the six-foot-nine Riley Anderson or six-foot-ten Sean Shultis for blocking matchups.
The 2019-2020 Rams have talent, that’s no question. Their challenge this season will be staying committed to playing the team system implemented by Harris.
A system he hopes will keep Ryerson’s blocking and defence system structured and organized. Additionally, being steady on first contact (serving and passing) and relying on their top muscle to provide consistent attacking will be the foundation upon which this young but committed team can grow.
Suhan and Vukets are confident in the players around them. Both cite a “collective buy-in” that excites them heading into the regular season.
And even though they will have to work to earn every inch they can get in the OUA East, their goal is clear.
“[We want to] win a championship. Easier said than done of course,” said Suhan. “But I think we’ve done some good things in the offseason, the guys have been putting in the work to make that goal much more of a reality.”