ABBOTSFORD — Recruited in the time of COVID-19 by a coach he’s never met, and headed off to a university campus he’s yet to even set foot on?
On the basis of those two factors alone, you could correctly assume that Zach Wikenheiser has a lot of things on his mind as he prepares for a debut 2020-21 Canada West men’s volleyball campaign this coming fall with the Fraser Valley Cascades.
Add the fact that all of this is happening as UFV makes its transition this fall to U Sports from the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA), a move which will be accompanied by the addition of 14 new players to what will be an 18-man roster.
And while the dictated daily regimens of a global pandemic prevent all teams from any kind of direct player interaction, it’s difficult to imagine any post-secondary sports program being as seriously impacted as the Cascades, who are not only joining a Canada West conference generally regarded as the best of its kind on the continent, but making that maiden journey with both a 78 per cent roster turnover and a 0 per cent ability to build vital offseason team chemistry.
UFV’s women’s volleyball team is set to make a similar transition, yet there will be more familiarity among its ranks as six newcomers are set to join 12 holdovers.
On one hand, Wikenheiser, a setter who played the first four seasons of his university career in the CCAA’s Alberta Collegiate Athletic Conference with his hometown Lethbridge College Kodiaks, typifies the steep learning curve which lies ahead for a Cascades men’s team brought together under the most unforeseen and trying of conditions by second-year head coach Nathan Bennett.
On the other, Wikenheiser, who will wrap up his collegiate career with expansion Fraser Valley as one of its most experienced players, sets the bar in terms of the pioneering spirit and the belief required just to get the Cascades to the starting line against powerhouse foes from Trinity Western, UBC and Alberta.
“It’s a leap of faith to try something new,” said Wikenheiser, who in one of the very last tournaments held before the coronavirus hit full force in mid-March, quarterbacked the Kodiaks to a fourth place finish at CCAA nationals in Fredericton, NB.
“There is the whole COVID thing, there is the uncertainty of a new program making the transition to Canada West, there’s all of my new teammates, and I’ve been here in Lethbridge my whole life,” added Wikenheiser. “I saw this opportunity to move to a new province as a unique experience. All of that played into my decision to do something new, to go forward and do the best that I could do despite all of the uncertainties.”
For a team without chemistry and still in search of its identity, Wikenheiser — delivered sight unseen to Abbotsford — seems like the perfect recruit.
SEARCHING FOR CASCADES’ DNA
Arriving in what was basically the 11th-hour run-up to the 2019-20 season this past August, Nathan Bennett eyed Fraser Valley’s final season in the CCAA’s PacWest Conference in part as an opportunity for the new head coach to get to know his team.
“Understanding that for the PacWest, I came late, I had no time to recruit, so the team was the team and we made the best of it, and I thought we had a great season,” added Bennett, whose Cascades lost in the conference quarterfinals to North Vancouver’s Capilano Blues, the eventual national champs.
Inheriting a team of 15 players, Bennett, who had spent the 2018-19 season as the head coach of the Saskatchewan Huskies, let his team know the opportunity which stood before them as the transition to U Sports began.
“For those players, they kind of had first advantage,” added Bennett, 41, who had also previously served as Capilano’s head coach and as an assistant with the Thompson Rivers women’s team. “They had a year-long tryout, and that is what I told them, that they have the first kick at the can: ‘I get to learn from you and I get to see your work ethic, your academic standings, your time management, all of that.’
“We did get to find out and learn a lot about our guys,” he added. “They told me what their goals were. The majority wanted to have a good last year, and they understood their position. They knew it would be a difficult jump for them. There were a couple of difficult discussions, but it was pretty seamless. In the end, four athletes have moved on with us.”
That quartet includes a trio of rising third-year players: Graham Walkey, a 5-foot-11 libero/setter from College Heights Secondary in Prince George via Abbotsford’s Columbia Bible College Bearcats; Justin Peleshytyk, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Kelowna Secondary; and Ian Jagersma, a 6-foot-10 middle from Edmonton’s Parkland Immanuel Christian.
Joining them is rising second-year 6-foot-3 outside hitter Caleb Kastelein, a former Langley Christian grad who was voted the No. 6 player by the Canada West’s B.C. coaches in Varsity Letters’ 2018 B.C. Super 15.
“Playing in the PacWest gave me lots of opportunity for playing time and it really helped build my confidence,” says Kastelein. “It’s going to benefit me coming into the Canada West.”
Since the new year, Bennett has announced 11 more players, with three more potentially to be named in the near future.
Much of the groundwork and many of the signings were done prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, yet a good number have had to come via FaceTime, e-mail, text and phone calls as dictated by the virus.
Along that journey, Bennett kept the process fluid, adapting to both the pool of available talent and the effect the virus had on recruiting.
First he looked for vets, later he focussed on youth. In the end, he is satisfied that the process yielded the kind of DNA needed to begin life in the ultra-competitive Canada West, the conference which, since the turn of the century, has produced 19 of the past 20 national champions.
“I must have talked to 40 athletes, just trying to figure out who was a good fit for us,” said Bennett. “Do they want to take the risk? I found out that there is a difference between the athletes. Some of them are really excited to be on the ground floor of a program going into the Canada West, and some wanted to be more set up with an established program.”
Bennett hit a home run on Jan. 9 when he announced the commitment of hometown player Tyson Ardell, the 6-foot-6 senior middle blocker with the MEI Eagles.
“Tyson coming on board shows he is putting his trust in me and putting his trust in the vision of the entire program,” said Bennett of Ardell, who was picked B.C.’s No. 4-ranked boys player on the 2019 VL B.C. Super 15. “I think he can be a great catalyst for our program and he is going to help us in the community.”
Bennett later announced a total of nine players, five in late February and four more in early April.
The most experienced of that group is 6-foot-9 rising fourth-year middle Noah Bouius, a Hanover, Ont., native transferring across town from CCAA Columbia Bible.
Also en route is third-year CCAA College of the Rockies transfer Reece Wilson, a 5-foot-11 libero from Brandon (Man.)-Neelin.
Ryan Adams, a 6-foot-9 right side from Sherwood Park (Alta.)-Archbishop Jordan via Thompson Rivers, joins as a second-year.
The freshman class includes B.C. players Bailey Burdick, a 6-6 left side from Summerland, who elected not to play this past season despite being voted B.C.’s No. 12 player in the VL 2018 Super 15; Comrie Engbers, a 6-foot-2 left side from Surrey Christian, and Braden White, a 6-foot-4 setter with the Kelowna Owls.
Three other Alberta freshmen will join the Cascades: Keegan Hanrahan, a 6-7 middle from Edmonton-M.E. Lazerte, Nathan Hall, a 5-11 libero from Lethbridge-Immanuel Christian, and Josh Gagnon 6-2 left side from Red Deer-Lindsay Thurber.
LOOKING FOR LEADERS
A fifth-year senior ready to come into an expansion program and pass on his wisdom to a young team over the final season of his university career is worth its weight in gold.
And although his recruiting process to UFV was conducted in a way he could never have dreamed of just a few months ago, Wikenheiser says it was as much about what he heard as what he saw.
“I guess I could have gone on-line and seen pictures of the university,” he admitted, nonetheless grateful that Bennett was willing to conduct a tour of the campus via FaceTime, stressing that what he heard in the tone and spirit of his new head coach’s voice during the virtual visit was ultimately the most important.
Considering the setter is like a volleyball team’s point guard, catcher and quarterback all rolled into one, Wikenheiser quickly relates the similarities from his virtual recruiting trip to the task at hand of building team chemistry once the team is finally able to see each other in person.
“The basis of how I see my role as a setter… it’s just like my recruiting visit,” he said. “Just like the trust I have for Nathan, even though I’ve never met the guy… it’s the same thing I will expect from my teammates. You have to be able to trust each other before you understand tendencies or hope to build chemistry. It’s going to be a big team of 18 guys, and we might not have a chance to meet for a while, so we have to build trust so I can run the most efficient and powerful offence possible. That’s just how a setter has to do his work.”
Walkey saw first hand last month how big the step is going to be at its highest levels when the Cascades begin play as a U sports team next season.
“I had the opportunity to watch the Canada West finals this year,” he said of heading to the Langley Events Centre to see Trinity Western sweep past Alberta 3-0 in the title match. “At that level, you can see the difference between CCAA and U Sports is pretty significant. There is so much size and speed added to the game. It’s going to be a big adjustment, but also a great challenge.”
For his part, Bennett is itching for a return to some level of normalcy, enough to let the natural process of team growth begin from its roots.
“I am not going to peg our guys into any roles right now,” explained Bennett. “I think for us, we’ll let (the players) figure that out through training, their social time, how they relate to me… it’s going to be up to them to decide.”
Let the first chapter begin.
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