Veterans Vriend, Peters and Morgan lead deep, physical Griffins team into fresh campaign

Libero David Morgan is now one of two Aussies on the Griffins as fellow countryman Jefferson Morrow has joined the squad this season (Chris Piggott photo).
Libero David Morgan is now one of two Aussies on the Griffins as fellow countryman Jefferson Morrow has joined the squad this season (Chris Piggott photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – If practices are any indication, the MacEwan men's volleyball team will be as competitive as they've ever been this season.

With a number of newcomers pushing for playing time, weekday sessions have been physical, intense and the best simulation of a game day match the Griffins have had since entering the tough Canada West conference in 2014.

"We've never had depth like this before," said head coach Brad Poplawski. "The quality of our training has been quite high. We're a lot bigger and lot more physical than we've ever been.

"There are things that used to work in practice that we knew wouldn't work in games. Now we're starting to see guys have to work a little bit harder in training to have success, which is what you want. You want to recreate game situations as much as possible. I think the guys we've brought in and the quality of our training has allowed some of that."

The Griffins will kick off the 2019-20 Canada West campaign on the road this weekend as they visit the Mount Royal University Cougars (Friday, 6 p.m. and Saturday, 5 p.m., both games Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

MacEwan is searching for the first Canada West playoff berth in program history and they have a little more depth in their quest. They will still lean heavily on star outside hitters Max Vriend and Jordan Peters, and libero David Morgan, but they've added a few pieces such as Australian outside Jefferson Morrow and athletic local outside hitter Olamide Ajayi out of St. Francis Xavier.

"Jefferson Morrow has just a really high volleyball IQ," said Poplawski of the Wynnum, Australia native, who joins fellow Aussie Morgan on the squad. "Good passer, good ball control, sees the game really well. I think he's been a good addition.

"Some of our young guys who aren't necessarily going to start have just raised that level of training," he continued. "A guy like Ola, coming in, he's only 17. He's quite young, but he's a physical guy, jumps really well and has a good arm. He's a good blocker, so he's really raised the level. A couple of our young middles have come in and have really pushed, so it's been nice to see those guys' progression as they've gotten used to the team and the league a little bit."

That said, the team will rely heavily on former Canadian Junior National team member Vriend, who is going into his final season of university volleyball and will be hungry to lead the Griffins into the post-season.

"It's no secret we get a lot of offence from him and our team kind of goes as he goes," said Poplawski. "He's been a four-year starter leading into this year, so he has a lot of experience and came in in great shape.

"Last year, there were obviously some growing pains in his first year being on the right side, but I think he looks so much more comfortable in that position this year. I've been happy with what I've seen from him in our exhibition and training. Hopefully, he can carry that into the regular season."

MacEwan doesn't have to look that far back to know about their opponent this weekend. They visited MRU on Sept. 13-14 in their only preseason action, splitting the two-match set against them. The Cougars aren't the same team that finished sixth in U SPORTS last season, but they'll still provide a stern test off the hop for the Griffins, who are looking to improve on a 3-19 record from last season.

"Obviously, they've lost a number of their core guys from last year, but I think they've replenished with some important pieces," said Poplawski. "Their left sides are both returners. One of their middles is on the junior national program – a really, really good player. I coached him with Team Alberta for a couple of seasons. Both setters put the ball in a hittable zone. They serve tough and they've brought in some young guys who are really pushing.

"It was a month ago we played them, so I know they're going to be quite a bit improved and quite a bit different than what we've seen. And hopefully we are, too."

In a schedule quirk partially due to Regina no longer having a men's volleyball program, the Griffins' home opener isn't until Nov. 22 vs. Brandon.