Tracking 1,000-kill career milestone, Vriend proves talent and hard work together can equal greatness

Max Vriend needs 11 kills this weekend to become the 24th player in Canada West men's volleyball history to reach 1,000 for his career (Robert Antoniuk photo).
Max Vriend needs 11 kills this weekend to become the 24th player in Canada West men's volleyball history to reach 1,000 for his career (Robert Antoniuk photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – Max Vriend's response to getting cut from Team Alberta as a 16-year-old foreshadowed his journey to become one of the best players the Canada West men's volleyball ranks has ever seen.

"I contacted him shortly after and he was really upset, I think," recalled MacEwan head coach Brad Poplawski. "He's always kind of had that mentality of 'I'm going to show you and I'm going to prove it to you.' "

Vriend made Team Alberta the next season, became a then-CIS all-rookie team member the year after that, made Canada's junior national team twice and enters the final weekend of his five-year journey at MacEwan just 11 kills shy of becoming the 24th player in the history of Canada West men's volleyball to reach 1,000 for his career.

"I love an athlete with something to prove," said Poplawski. "I love that about him that he doesn't feel 'I'm great,' it's that 'I want to be great' and I think there's a distinction there.

"From my perspective, that was a big moment for him to get cut from that team. He could have gone two ways with it – '(forget) volleyball, I didn't make Team Alberta.' But he went the other way with it (saying) 'I'm going to make Team Alberta next summer.' He's kind of shown this dogged determination; if he sets his mind to a goal, he's going to do it."

As Vriend leads the Griffins into their regular season finale against Thompson Rivers University on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and Saturday (6:30 p.m., both David Atkinson Gym, Canada West TV presented by Co-op), he leads the conference in kills (269) and kills per set (4.01) – accounting for 40.5 per cent of the Griffins' total production, by far the highest percentage in Canada West.

"The numbers speak for themselves," said Poplawski. "He has a chance to break into rarified air with 1,000 kills. I think he's already top 20 in points. It's pretty special."

Vriend has 1256.0 points, which is 17th all time and he has a good chance of breaking into the top 15 before his season ends. He also sits 13th in career Canada West blocks with 319.

He also holds a good majority of MacEwan's program records, including most kills in a match with 32 last Friday at UBC-Okanagan.

"I give him all the credit," said Poplawski. "We've pushed him pretty hard, but an athlete has to want that, an athlete has to invest in that.

"You've seen every year he's come in stronger, faster the season he was before because of the work he put in in the off-season. When he has a goal, he's relentless."

That's because Vriend – who will leave as the best men's volleyball player MacEwan has ever had – has always believed that no matter how much work he puts in, he can always be better.

"Since I started volleyball, I was always kind of the bottom of the pack, whether it was bottom of the bottom pack or middle pack or the top pack, it always felt like as I rose up to the next level I was at the bottom," he explained. "So, the legacy it leaves, you always have to work hard to get to the bottom of the next pack. Always work. No matter which level you're at, you're always working from the bottom."

Max Vriend hits a kill against Alberta's block during a game earlier in his career (Robert Antoniuk photo).

That mindset has seen Vriend hit every individual goal in the five-year plan Poplawski had for him, including successfully transitioning from the middle to outside full-time in his fourth year.

"You have a lot of athletes tell you things – 'I want it. I want it.' They can do it for a week or two, but he's relentless in his pursuit," said Poplawski. "That's just a good life skill to have when he's done volleyball. He's a pretty special young man.

"He'll be a guy I know I'll be using as an example for every team I coach going forward. Yeah, you have some talent, but what are you going to do with it? Max had talent, but it could very easily have gone the other way. He could have just relied on that and he wouldn't have had half the career he did. It's a testament to how hard he worked."

Soon, Vriend will be starting at the bottom of the pack again as he pursues a career in professional volleyball before eventually putting his MacEwan Commerce degree to work in the field of accounting.

"I've come pretty far and there's still a long way to go," he said of his volleyball journey, which began in his hometown of Barrhead. "I do see myself as one of the stronger players in this league but knowing it's not over for me … this is where my senior night will be a bit different from some of the other graduating guys.

"The tools that I've built here with the help of teammates and coaches … it's a means to the next step. So, I achieved what I achieved here. Was I one of the strongest guys in this league? Probably. But moving on to the next step … what I've done here won't help me at the next step, but what I've used to get where I am will help me."

Vriend and fellow graduating teammates Jonathan Mohler, Mark Ritter and David Morgan will be feted on Saturday as part of the program's Senior Night celebrations. True to his selfless nature, Vriend insisted the night be more focused on the other three guys.

"I want the night to be special for the people who are going to be done playing competitive volleyball," said Vriend. "I've become pretty close with them over the past few years."

Mohler will leave with the third-most career assists in the program's Canada West history and close a unique chapter for the Griffins.

"Next season will be the first time in nine years we don't have a Mohler setting for us," noted Poplawski. "We had his brother Matt for five years and then Johnny for five.

"To be honest, we thought he might never play," he added. "His knees were so bad. So, I think just the fact he was able to push to play and compete shows pretty good character."

Read more on Jonathan Mohler here

Ritter, the program's last connection to its Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference era, playing there in 2013-14 before four Canada West seasons over six years, has also had his share of injuries to overcome.

"Poor guy has had a run of injuries but has always battled back," he said. "He's in school, wants to be part of the program and we always want to have him part of the program. Just a versatile guy. Came to us as a left side, made the transition to libs (when Morgan was injured)."

Read more on Mark Ritter here

Morgan did have a healthy season in 2018-19 and came within two of the program's single season digs record with 177.

"He's the first Australian athlete ever in our program," said Poplawski. "I can't speak highly enough. He's a great student and leads the way for academics. He's a great mentor for young guys. On the court, good work ethic; off the court, great work ethic."

Read more on David Morgan here