Rookie setter Watchman displays poise, talent after being thrust into starting role for Griffins

Thomas Watchman had 52 assists in a match against Manitoba earlier this season - tying the fifth-most in a Canada West match by a Griffins setter in program history (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Thomas Watchman had 52 assists in a match against Manitoba earlier this season - tying the fifth-most in a Canada West match by a Griffins setter in program history (Robert Antoniuk photo).

Austin Connelly, For MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – With fourth-year veteran Jonathan Mohler firmly entrenched as the MacEwan Griffins' starting setter to begin the year, playing time for men's volleyball rookie Thomas Watchman seemed destined to be limited.

But when Mohler suffered an injury early in the 2019-20 Canada West season, Watchman was thrust into the starting role. And he's thrived, starting the past 10 games for the Griffins.

"I wasn't too nervous which, kind of surprised me," says Watchman on his first career start, which came at Calgary on Nov. 8. "Just excited, I was grateful for the opportunity to play."

The transition didn't come without its challenges since Watchman had to quickly try and create chemistry with the rest of the starters.

"For the first however many months of the season I didn't set the starting guys too much," says Watchman. "When John got hurt, I got thrown in that lineup, so just working on chemistry and what kind of sets they wanted (was the challenge)."

Head coach Brad Poplawski was impressed with how quickly Watchman has been able to take the reins and adapt to the starting role.

"Honestly, he's well exceeded my expectations as a first-year setter.," he said. "The setter is the quarterback, so everything runs through them. It's a tough position because there's a lot of technical things you have to be really good at, like your footwork, your hands – there's a lot of technique that goes into it."

Watchman will lead the Griffins (2-12) against cross-town rival Alberta (10-4) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

Standing at 5-foot-9, Watchman is one of only two players on the Griffins roster who aren't at least 6-feet tall, which a testament to his natural ability to excel as a setter because he doesn't get to rely on his length or height to succeed. For what he doesn't possess in height, he uses his smarts to anticipate plays and the timing of his jumps at the net.

Initially, Poplawski simplified things for Watchman to ease him into the increased playing time and responsibility, but he quickly found that he could open up the playbook once he showed the ability to run a fast offence.

"I'd like to improve on everything always," says Watchman. "Recently I've been trying to run more speed, a speed offence, so I've been working on that."

A former setter himself, the head coach has been impressed.

"It's a tough position at any age, let alone for an undersized player," said Poplawski. "So, I mean, you're playing against big boys in Canada West, yet he's come in and done some really good things for us."

Poplawski highlighted a Nov. 9 game against Calgary where Watchman had 49 assists in a four-set loss in just his second start of his career, which really illustrated his potential talent with the Griffins. He's since topped that with 52 assists against Manitoba on Nov. 29. Both marks stand in the top-10 for most by a Griffins setter in a Canada West match.

"His hands are amazing, he's got an amazing release," says Poplawski "When he contacts the ball, the way the ball leaves his hands and action he has on the ball is just phenomenal. These are hands you would show to a young athlete when they're learning to set."

The significance about Watchman's release ability is the consistency it allows for the ball to hit the same zone for his hitters, which ultimately allows the team to run a fast more effective offence.

"He thinks the game quite well," says Poplawski. "When I have been talking to him about different offences run, I can see him in match able to apply it right away."

The Edmonton product of the NOOKS U18 club program and Jasper Place high school is in MacEwan's Commerce program. He's relishing the challenges of making an impact as a rookie student-athlete.

"It's tough but I like the challenge," says Watchman. "You know the stress, but I feel like it pushes me more."

Watchman will be getting another challenge soon when Mohler returns to full health and the two battle it out during practice for the starting role on weekends – exactly the kind of healthy competition Poplawski relishes to push the team's success forward.