By Reid Kelly
It’s Labour Day 2018, and Ryerson Rams men’s volleyball assistant coach Niko Rukavina receives a phone call.
He hears that head coach, Matt Harris, was put on administrative leave. Rukavina is suddenly named interim head coach.
There is no explanation given. No timetable for his return. It’s one week before open tryouts. One week before what was to be his coaching debut.
That moment meant Rukavina was about to be thrown into the fire to lead one of Ontario’s up-and-coming premier university volleyball programs.
“The first couple weeks were definitely overwhelming,” said Rukavina. “There wasn’t a lot of communication of what was going on. It was tough on the coaches, tough on the athletes. We were just kind of going week by week for at least the first semester.”
Still, Rukavina was excited about the opportunity. This was his goal for years, and with the wealth of knowledge from his playing career, Rukavina had a lot to offer. However, he wanted to fulfill Harris’ vision, as this was his team.
“In my mind, I was still Matt’s assistant. I was still supporting Matt and [wanted] him to come back,” said Rukavina. “I didn’t want to implement too much of my own stuff.”
“We started off kind of putting band-aids on problems”
In 2007, Rukavina committed to playing volleyball at Queen’s University. The outside hitter went on to play five successful seasons with the Gaels, reaching the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) finals four times and winning silver and gold medals twice.
Rukavina then went on to play professionally overseas, spending years in Sweden and Germany.
After moving back to Toronto in 2016, Rukavina met Harris through a youth volleyball program called Pakmen in Mississauga. When Harris was named Ryerson’s head coach in April 2018, he tapped his young colleague to be his assistant.
Rukavina never expected that after joining the coaching staff in August 2018, weeks later he would become the interim head coach.
The Rams, a very young but strong team on paper, started the season slowly. Aside from adjusting to a new coach and a new program, the team lost two of their starting players in the same week.
“It was really tough; we were scrambling,” said third-year setter Greg Vukets. “A lot of what we did was temporary. We started off kind of putting band-aids on problems. The vibe was kind of, ‘This is what it’s going to be until Matt comes back.’”
In November 2018, the team took a trip to Windsor. A snowstorm hit southern Ontario, and the bus ride took nine hours. The Rams struggled and lost to the Lancers 3-1. They were forced to put players in positions they weren’t used to, trying to find something that clicked.
Still, it was a stepping stone for the Rams, as they took a set from a great program. Maybe this was a sign—a sign that they were still a team, and they still had the pieces they needed.
“As the year went on, I think guys respected my knowledge of the game a little bit more,” said Rukavina. “They understood that we were still in a good enough place with me as a head coach. We weren’t at a disadvantage.”
The team got red-hot in the new year. Ryerson went on an 8-2 run in the second half of the season, highlighted by back-to-back wins over Nipissing and Toronto in the same weekend.
Rams outside hitter Xander Ketrzynski was quickly establishing himself as one of the greatest players to ever put on a Rams jersey in just his first year alone.
Ketrzynski ranked first in the country in kills and hitting percentage while leading the OUA in service aces and points.
“He understands what players need…I feel like I can always communicate with him”
Ryerson, who was swept by Windsor in the regular season, would eventually take the same team to five sets in the OUA playoffs, but fell 3-2. Regardless of not being able to make it out of the first round, it was an impressive feat for a team coming off such a rollercoaster year.
In summer 2019, Rukavina received another phone call.
This time it was to inform him that Harris would be coming back to the team and resuming as head coach for the 2019-20 season. Rukavina was thrilled, also coming back as a lead assistant coach.
While becoming a head coach was his ultimate goal, he had originally joined Ryerson to work alongside Harris and was more than willing to do it again.
The only question left was how stepping back into this role would affect the coaches and team. But it was seamless.
“It’s even better,” said Vukets. “We still see Niko every day, he’s in the gym with us all day. Back to business.”
The Rams entered the 2019 season with high expectations. A solid coaching staff, as well as the addition of recruits and a great transfer in outside hitter Taryq Sani, has left the team feeling confident to jump the first-round hurdle this season.
Rukavina has adapted to the role of assistant coach and enjoys being a development-minded coach, which allows him to be in the gym every morning with players. His youth and experience on the court made it easy to form strong relationships with players.
“He understands what players need,” said Vukets. “And that’s half of coaching, just understanding your personnel. I feel like I can always communicate with him. And that’s authentic, you know? That’s not something you can force, that’s something that comes through time.”
Harris, who also brings with him a mountain of experience and success, is a technical savant. His tactical expertise lends itself well to this talented Rams roster.
“I’ve been really happy with the relationship with me and Matt,” said Rukavina. “We do converse about a lot of things, and we attack the team as a partnership, so that transition has been really good. Now, I can use the confidence from being head coach and take that into being his lead assistant, and tackling that, both of us.”
“I’m never going to be the perfect coach. Just trying to get better every day, every week, every year”
The Rams have found themselves in a similar position to last season, hovering just above the .500 mark. Yet, no one seems worried. The team knows the talent they have and are confident they can turn on the jets late.
As hectic as the 2018 season was for Rukavina and the Rams, they have walked away with a valuable lesson: to learn how to swim, and jump in the deep end.
“Coaching to me is something I’m never going to be at the peak of,” said Rukavina. “I’m never going to be the perfect coach. Just trying to get better every day, every week, every year.”
Rukavina coaches with more confidence than ever, helping lead a team he has quickly created a deep bond with. While the ultimate goal of a U Sports Championship was not achieved last year, Rukavina stepped into the spotlight and the Rams proved they would not let any adversity stand in their way.