A million things are running through Francis Sirois’ mind when he jumps up in front of the net and prepares to smash the volleyball onto the opposing team’s side of the court.
He needs to decide what he’s going to do with the ball almost instantly.
He needs to see in front of him, to make sure another player isn’t blocking his shot.
He needs to see the floor, to choose the place where the ball will land.
Most of all, he needs to see around him, to know what his teammates are doing. If one part of the well-oiled machine that is a volleyball team malfunctions, the team as a whole can’t function properly and won’t have success on the court.
Communication is key and two words is all it takes for Sirois to tell his team what he plans to do.
And all of this has to happen instantaneously, because two seconds could be too long to wait.
It seems like volleyball players need to have eyes in the back of their heads to take it all in. It’s not something everyone can be good at, Sirois acknowledged.
“Being a volleyball player is a lot [of physical skill] but it’s a lot of mental at the same time. Not everybody in this world can do it. Everybody thinks it’s pretty simple but it’s really not,” he said.
“I don’t know how to do it. I’ve been playing since Grade 8 so I guess practice makes it better.”
Sirois knows the sport well and he said it’s the strength he brings to the team. He’s only in his first year at St. Thomas University, but he’s played university-level teams with his high school club at École St. Anne.
A year ago, the men’s volleyball team was the talk of campus, but for all of the wrong reasons.
Andrew Bartlett, a member of the team, died after a night of heavy drinking at the team’s rookie party. Following allegations of hazing and differential treatment to new players, the team was suspended for the rest of the season.
Not only did this erase an entire season, but it didn’t leave much to build on at the beginning of this year. The team needed a new coach and almost an entirely new roster of players.
The result is a group made up almost exclusively of first-year players with a lot to prove, including Sirois, its captain.
A lack of experience at the Atlantic Colleges Athletic Association level hasn’t stopped the team from performing well on the court.
With about two weeks left in the season, before championships at STU at the end of February, the squad has a 4-6 record.
“I guess [the other teams are] kind of underestimating us since we didn’t have a team last year,”Sirois said.
“You never take a team easily. Anyone can win in volleyball. Being pumped up makes a big difference in a game, so anybody can beat anybody.”
Sirois’ teammates aren’t all new to him. Three others played with him at École Sainte Anne last year.
One of the new faces is Andrew Keddy, who, at 22, is much older than most of his fresh-faced teammates.
Keddy is the only returning player on the team. He was supposed to be on last year’s team before the season was cancelled, and played the year before that, too.
He started out the year helping coach the team and sharing some tips on how to adapt to the pace of play in the ACAA.
In second semester, when he returned to STU to work on a math degree (he dreams of being a high school math teacher and volleyball coach), he picked up a jersey and joined the team.
“They wanted me to come back in the fall, but I wasn’t really ready to come back to school,” Keddy said.
“It was kind of awkward to just mesh with the guys in going from almost a coach to a player and kind of get to know them and just become friends.”
But he quickly found a role within his new team – his knowledge of the game helps him control the court as a setter – and he’s been impressed with their dedication.
“They really have the drive that I’d say I probably didn’t have when I was that age. I have it now and it’s good to see these players have it. It’s exciting to be on a team like that.”
Keddy was recruited back to the team by Francis Duguay, a former teammate of Keddy’s.
Duguay, who is also 22, is in his first year coaching the group, after stints coaching at École Sainte Anne. He was a star on the Castors in his Grade 12 year, when Sirois was only in Grade 8.
He runs a Tuesday night practice at the aging South Gym, where three men’s volleyball championship banners from 2002 and 2006 dot the walls.
Unlike most coaches, who observe from the sidelines, Duguay joins in on the scrimmage, blending in with his young team. The only way to know he’s the coach is the huddles he organizes after the scrimmage.
“I think I bring experience from knowing exactly how the league plays out. I’ve been playing in it for the last four years,” Duguay said. “I know exactly the level of play, the speed of the game, so I know how to adjust to it and train my team accordingly.”
Technically, Duguay is co-coach with Tom Coolen, who takes care of managerial duties for the team.
But Duguay has spent most of the time on the court with his players, helping them gel together and teaching them everything he knows. He personally recruited most of the players on the team, choosing the 12 of them out of 15 players who tried out.
The team’s been rebuilding for the past few years and for the first time, STU is dressing a full squad of 12, most who will be around for the next three years to play.
Duguay knows the team had to play its way back to being competitive after last year and that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.
“We had to come out and say, after what happened last year, we want to show some professionalism on the court.
“We’re not just coming back for fun. We’re in the league and we’re coming back to be competitive and that’s what we’ve done.”
Correction: In the Jan. 31 print version of this story we said the men’s vollyball team was in the Atlantic University Sports league. That is incorrect. It is a member of the Atlantic Colleges Athletic Association.
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