This is a massive year for the Brandon University Bobcats men’s volleyball team in a lot of ways.
The Bobcats are defending their Canada West title and trying to get back to nationals with the goal of winning one more match then they did a season ago. They would love to send fifth-years Seth Friesen, Reece Dixon and Mason Metcalf off with that national gold.
But with significant turnover at the top of their lineup, it’s also a big year for the future. Backups need to step up and take over soon, and a solid rookie class is required to maintain the team’s success.
Head coach Grant Wilson hopes he took a big step in that direction with the signing of Tom Friesen.
No, I’m not quitting my job to play for BU: There’s no way I could hit like this kid, anyway. Wilson says the six-foot-six outside hitter has one of the best arm actions in the province.
"There’s a lot of upside about Tom. He’s a long, lanky, athletic kid," Wilson said. "He hits at a really high peak and snaps the ball really well, and has a real quality spin serve. Overall, he’s a real quality person and student-athlete and he’s going to fit in great with our team."
It’s only October and Brandon’s recruiting class for next season — which includes Vincent Massey’s Liam Kindle — has already equalled the size of the current rookie class: Jens Watt and Michael Flor.
It was certainly a struggle to find players throughout the Bobcats’ historic run, going 20-2 in conference play and winning their second-ever Canada West title. While there could have been multiple reasons that players Wilson reached out to chose not to sign, the perceived lack of opportunity to play early in their U Sports careers could certainly have been one of them.
Now, it’s clear that more than half the starting line up will be gone after the 2020-21 season — which includes the chance to host nationals.
Suddenly, making the move to BU looks like a promising choice.
"It’s a big recruiting year for us and we knew that going in. We have a strong team and people are starting to take notice," Wilson said. "I’m hoping that word is just finally getting out that this is a great place to be to be a student-athlete, experience life as a student and volleyball player and try to keep it going.
"People are looking at our roster and seeing that we’re a little bit top-heavy in terms of older guys. So there’s going to be some guys graduating, some spots opening up, but we’re still going to be competitive again."
For Friesen, it was an easy choice made simpler by ties to the team and western Manitoba. The former provincial teamer and Aztecs Volleyball Club product lived in Brandon as a baby, spent a few years in Virden and moved to Winkler in Grade 1.
"I’m really excited to be playing at BU. It’s nice to know already I’m playing with BU because there’s not much pressure during the school year to make sure I’m playing for scouts or anything like that," Friesen said, adding that visiting the school and training with the guys helped.
"For starters, the volleyball program is really great. It’s a great group of guys and Grant is a really great coach, so supportive."
Friesen’s father, Alwin, actually played senior men’s volleyball with Wilson and Seth Friesen’s dad, Paul. Since Alwin moved on to coach a lot of junior high and club teams in Winkler, Tom got exposed to the game early and liked it right away.
As the years went on, he grew and developed into a versatile attacker, though he’s continually looking for ways to improve his game at the net.
"The strengths of my game are serving and hitting, offence in general," he said. "I’m usually pretty calm on the court and pretty consistent, and I’m working on my off-speed hits.
"I’ll have to work on a bit more of a variety of shots. Some players are getting that hard push or tip down the line, so maybe I can work on that a bit. Also, adjusting to a bit of a quicker set, I’ll need to do that because at the university level all the sets are a bit faster. I’ll also need to work on my defence quite a bit, and always need to work on serve receive."
Friesen doesn’t get as much match experience as past Garden Valley teams, since they no longer compete in Winnipeg’s South Central Athletic Conference — which features the province’s top-ranked Dakota Lancers.
Currently unranked and unlikely to secure a wildcard spot for AAAA provincials, the Zodiacs will have to rely on an interzone qualifier against the winner of the Brandon High School Volleyball League. If it’s the top-seeded Vikings, it’s a chance to compete against Kindle one more time before wearing the BU Blue and Yellow together.
"It’s always fun to play Liam because he’s a great competitor, he’s a strong attacker and it’s always a challenge to stop Liam," Friesen said. "I’m really look to playing with Liam."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen