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Vriend kills on the volleyball court with MacEwan University Griffins

MacEwan Griffins volleyball's Max Vriend became the 24th player in Canada West Conference men's volleyball history to earn 1,000 career kills.
MacEwan Griffins volleyball's Max Vriend became the 24th player in Canada West Conference men's volleyball history to earn 1,000 career kills.

There was only one problem with winning MacEwan University’s male athlete of the year award for Max Vriend.

The outside hitter who led Canada West in kills this season would have preferred having room on the trophy for the names of all 19 of his Griffins volleyball teammates to appear right next to his.

“It’s a big award,” said Vriend, 22. “I like sharing it with my team. They’ve been with me for so long, a few of them for five years and my coach for five years.

“It felt like a long-time coming, but I don’t really know.”

He received the award along with female athlete of the year Jamie Erickson, of Griffins soccer, as part of an eight-day online rollout of the athletic department’s annual awards that concluded last week under COVID-19 measures.

In his fifth and final year of university eligibility, Vriend finished first with 317 kills, 4.17 kills per set and 4.8 points per set. He accounted for 41.7 per cent of his team’s offensive production – the most of any single player in the conference – on his way to earning MacEwan’s first Canada West all-star honour in men’s volleyball in school history.

“He’s set a standard, not just for men’s volleyball, but I think it’s a bar every Griffins athlete should try to reach,” said MacEwan men’s volleyball coach Brad Poplawski. “He’s literally done everything in his career at MacEwan.”

Unfortunately, his individual success didn’t always translate into team progress for a Griffins group that finished at the bottom of CanWest standings with a 2-20 record.

And while their season was over before the worldwide lockdown saw the U-Sports national championships get cancelled, Vriend is finding his efforts to push his playing career to the next level getting stuff-blocked by the global pandemic.

In a barren sports-scape where gyms and fitness centres have been forced to close their doors for weeks now, weights are the new currency for athletes looking to continue training throughout the COVID-19 shutdown.

But Vriend is one of the lucky ones.

“My family owns a gym back in my hometown,” the six-foot-eight Barrhead product said of Eric’s Gym. “So we stole some weights and stuff like that and will bring it back when it opens again.”

Having graduated from the Griffins program, Vriend – like many promising young volleyball players in Canada – had his sights set on making the jump to the national stage, with an eye on also playing pro in Europe next season.

That is, before everything was put on hold.

“Originally, I was going to wait and see if I got invited to play on the Senior B team this year,” he said of the Volley Canada program, where he spent 2016 and ’17 with the junior national team. “I don’t know if they cancelled it beforehand, but I didn’t get anything, no contact to see if I was invited. But the same time I would have known was right around the time they started shutting everything down.

“So it’s hard to know if I was going to get invited or if it was already cancelled, so then my summer just kind of went in limbo.”

Instead, he will be working at a campground his parents recently opened near Barrhead.

“Hopefully, that will still be open,” said Vriend, who couldn’t have foreseen this final chapter to his university career. “It’s weird. I don’t think the ending’s good any way you look at it, but I was not expecting this ending at all.”

Of course, isolation measures won’t last forever, and regardless of the response from Volleyball Canada, Vriend will be taking his talents to the pros in Europe.

“I’m looking. I’ve been having some good talks with my agent, there’s teams interested,” he said. “But at this point, teams are waiting to see what kind of funding they’ll have because of the virus affecting their sponsors or their government sponsors, where they’re allocating funds.”

The only saving grace to all of it is all the other top prospects looking to transition their careers to the next level are facing the same challenges.

“The way the professional season starts, I was getting interest from teams and it was pretty early still,” Vriend said of volleyball’s annual cycle. “Even thought the whole virus thing is huge, it’s affecting virtually everybody in the world, it’s still pretty early to find a contract.

“So hopefully moving into the summer when things become a little more defined with the virus, is also the busy season to find contracts. So the pressure, I think, will be a little bit more on as it moves toward the summer.”

Until then, all he can do is concentrate his body on his borrowed weights and his mind on better times ahead.

“I try to stay pretty positive,” Vriend said. “When I was a younger athlete, I would definitely put more weight into things and when they didn’t work out, I’d be way more disappointed. I think I’m getting better with it now.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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