Ian Froese, Staff Contributor
He confidently grasped the volleyball as he stood behind the serving line. He knew what was expected of him. So did his teammates; so did his coaches; and so did the home crowd. All were watching with bated breath. The Tigers wanted this serve to be the final serve of the match.
To get to this point — match point — wasn’t easy. The Tigers and UNB Varsity Reds were trading points in the deciding set. With the score 15 – 14, all that was required was for the home side to get the next point and the Tigers would prevent an upset. This was the type of high-pressure scenario that great athletes hunger for, and one that wasn’t envisioned for Angus Rhuland.
Today, Angus is your average student-athlete. He juggles early morning practices, mid-day workouts and evening study sessions. Through hard work and dedication, the 24 year-old setter, in his third year of eligibility, has become a fixture in the starting lineup of the Dalhousie Tigers men’s volleyball team.
He took a few detours along the way to becoming a veteran university athlete. They were diversions that strayed drastically from most aspiring CIS volleyball players. For instance, Angus didn’t play on the volleyball team throughout high school like the bulk of his peers.
In fact, Angus Rhuland dropped out of school.
The customary team meal
Minutes ahead of 5 p.m., a few Fridays back, Angus casually strolls into Sheriff Hall for the pre-game meal, three hours preceding the match. The 6’2’’, 195 lb. Rhuland is built, and looks every bit the university athlete, clad like his teammates in matching black outfits. Sporting a black ball cap, Angus dons a Tigers’ track jacket and track pants. The conformity of his black attire clashes with the white earbud leisurely strung from his left ear.
Enough members of the team congregate in the lobby and the sea of black drifts into the meal hall. Most fill their trays with carbohydrate-heavy meals. Lasagna, for example, is always made available to the men’s volleyball team before their games. Angus was one of the pasta recipients, enjoying some noodles along with a burger and a wrap peppered with meat and veggies.
Segregated in the far end of the meal hall, the players were shooting the breeze, exchanging zingers across the table. They were only interrupted by the noise of clinking glasses. This was a team tradition, and the unwitting victim of the buttering of the shoe prank was ‘Junior,’ Angus Campbell.
The friendly prank, the older Angus explains, involves a player splattering a slab of butter onto the shoe of an unsuspecting party. Once it happens, glasses are rung.
Mischief aside, the team dinner at the meal hall was a stress-free occasion. But what would be a team gathering without some taunting? The guys poked fun at slighter teammates who need more muscle on their frame, and Devon Parkinson’s role as an extra in the made-for-TV movie Sorority Wars (one can imagine that is a running joke).
The solidarity of this Tigers’ outfit is evident right away. They sit together, eat together and laugh together. In high school most of these players likely envisioned this camaraderie when they dreamed of cracking a CIS roster. For Angus, his dream was a bit more particular: he wanted to wear the black and gold. Although he had a knack for volleyball, Rhuland faced more doubters than believers.
School of hard knocks
When Angus was younger he was involved in multiple sports. While volleyball was of most importance, he was equally talented, if not more so, in football and soccer, in which the Halifax-native made the provincial teams. Complementing his sporting resume, Angus played hockey, basketball, badminton, track and field and boxing.
A sporting phenomenon in his community, Angus was turning heads and appeared on his way to bearing a Tigers uniform. The only question was, which sport?
But that question soon lost its importance. The 16 year-old was blindsided with the reality that sports are only a game. He was struck with the news that his grandmother had passed away. Angus took the loss hard. His grandmother had been living with the family for the past 10 years and her sudden death was devastating.
The news changed him, and not for the better. He partied too much and academics lost their importance. Just before his Grade 10 year, he dropped out of school.
“I thank my parents for not turning their back on me,” Angus recalled. “They should have.”
Rhuland abandoned schooling and high school volleyball, but continued playing on club teams. He still took pleasure in setting up the perfect spike, and he delighted in hitting a football opponent, but since walking away from school he hadn’t been as devoted as he should have been. He gained considerable weight, adding 65 pounds in the next few years.
The next fall Angus returned to Queen Elizabeth High School, but he still needed an incentive to carry on. His mom, Lois MacGregor, described to the school how important it was for her son to have athletics; it gave him a reason to be there.
And it worked. He went to class and received quality court time. But Angus’ same “dumb, distracted” self reappeared and in the second semester, now that school volleyball was over, he attended class sparingly. He obtained a meagre two credits, both from the first semester.
Angus had basically dropped out again. Ambitions of a high school diploma and a university career seemed farfetched, at best. Then, one day, something happened — his perspective changed. He was going to commit to school.
“My mind clicked,” Angus said, snapping his fingers as he recalled the enlightening moment. “I was being an idiot.”
He took two more years to graduate. In his first year back, he couldn’t play on the volleyball team because of a lack of credits. The next year, he was too old. Angus couldn’t be dragged away from the court, so he helped coach the team he wasn’t permitted to play for.
The former dropout developed into a leader in his high school, and he still is at Dal.
Turning dream into reality
In a classroom at the Dalplex with tables lined up to form a large rectangle sits head coach Dan Ota in front of a projector screen. Players rest in their assigned seats and took out a pen and paper. Angus does the same, removing his hat and placing his Tim Hortons cup within reach.
The room gets quiet as the coach speaks, using prepackaged video footage to show his soldiers the tendencies of the UNB Varsity Reds.
Players jot down notes, but they are already well aware of the night’s game plan. They simply have to execute it.
Angus is one of the few to ask a question in the meeting, wondering if Andrew Costa tips the ball. The coach says the Reds’ setter is known for it.
Angus and his coach have had a rapport since 2005 when Rhuland was on the provincial team for the Canada Summer Games. Though he only played club volleyball, he was still levels beyond the majority of his peers with more experience.
In Regina that year, the question of Angus’ future came up. Rhuland wanted to play for Ota as a Tiger. His coach reacted with a slight smirk and for good reason, too: Angus wasn’t a towering player on the floor, he didn’t scream ‘natural jumper’ and wasn’t in the best game shape. Sure, he had lost 40 pounds, but Angus would have to commit to the sport even further. But Ota saw the teenager’s potential and invited him to the Tigers open tryout next year. The rest is history.
Angus did not see court time at the tournament, but not for volleyball reasons.
One night, after walking from a bar in downtown Halifax looking for a taxi, he came across a fight involving a buddy of his. Rhuland stepped in to interrupt, dragging his friend out of harm’s way. When retreating, he peaked behind his shoulder to make sure the aggressor was backing down, but he didn’t. He sucker punched Angus. He threw two further punches until Angus tripped over the curb. He was knocked out, suffered a brain contusion and a bruise of the brain. He was in the hospital for 10 days and was recommended to avoid sports for a number of months.
A respectable crowd of around 200 were cheering on the women’s team before the men’s match at the Dalplex. Among them were an older man and woman sitting at the top corner of one of the bleachers wearing jerseys with the number nine on them. Nine is Angus’ jersey number.
His dreams of playing for the home side at the Dalplex came from his parents.
MacGregor, Angus’ mother, is ingrained in Tigers’ lore. She played volleyball in the 1960s and coached the team to a national title in 1982, the sole Atlantic volleyball team to win national gold in either gender. Her achievement was celebrated in 2004 when she was included in the opening class of the Dalhousie Sports Hall of Fame.
His mother — and his father who became a fan watching MacGregor play — never pushed Angus to play volleyball, but their interest in it rubbed off. As a young kid he watched Dal play, particularly his “cool cousin” and first-team CIS all-Canadian Scott Bagnell in the late 1990s.
Volleyball runs in his family, but there must have been other factors that lured him to the sport. He was physically gifted in soccer and football. He doesn’t say the same about volleyball. So what made him pursue the court rather than the field? He doesn’t have a clear-cut answer.
“I don’t know. It’s a tough sport to play,” he said. “I enjoy challenges.”
Orchestrating the offence
The UNB side is confident this evening, but it would be an upset, albeit not a drastic one, if they claimed victory.
The first two sets were decided by two points or less. The Tigers won the first set; the Reds returned the favour.
Angus was a starter this evening. After two seasons on the sidelines as a redshirt and now in his third year on the active roster, officially becoming the undisputed setter this fall was a long time coming.
“He’s not the kind of guy that’s going to be discouraged from some setbacks,” said Ota. “Now he’s at the point where he’s the starting setter tonight. It’s what he’s wanted his whole career, the chance to lead our squad on the floor.”
The leadership capabilities of Angus and his fellow veterans are needed, particularly in the third set. The team is lifeless out of the gate and they are ineffective, despite numerous timeouts.
The scene plays out repeatedly. The boys circle their coach in silence — a muted pause amongst the rustle of cheers and conversation. The coach’s arms are crossed. For a few seconds, his voiceless demeanor speaks for him.
“We shouldn’t have to make a mistake to figure it out,” says the frustrated coach to his team after a block gone awry. “It should be obvious!”
After receiving a net violation for illegally touching the net with his fingers, the coach swaps his setters, pulling Angus for Justin Kilb. The score was 16 – 10 to the Reds and there is no indication their lead will evaporate. Angus put his track clothing back on and encouraged his teammates from his new position. They would fall in the set, 25 – 19.
When the fourth set arrives, Angus returns to the floor and his troops recover. The Tigers tied the match at two, winning the fourth set 25 – 18.
The do-or-die scenario certainly thrills Angus, a man who plays with his heart on his sleeve. He angrily scrapes the floor with his sneaker when a play falters, or hides his face with his hands when his mistake proves detrimental. When plays go well, he’s ecstatic.
The fears of an upset are revived in the fifth set—the Reds hold an 8 – 5 advantage at the changeover. The picture for the Tigers isn’t rosy, but they claw back to even the match 14 – 14.
The Tigers claim a crucial lead when outside Sander Ratsep gets a point and a few chuckles from the crowd. He spikes the ball, slamming an opponent in the face. The score is 15 – 14. The home side has their second attempt to close the match.
It’s Angus’ chance to serve. To his left are the fans, hanging on the ball’s every flight. To his right is his team, surveying the proceedings. In front of him is his intended destination for the ball: the opposing floor.
The serve sails over the net. The ball is volleyed back. Angus launches it for a Ratsep smash from the left side. Two Reds defenders soar to stop it but they can’t. The ball doesn’t come back this time. A successful block from Aaron Binstock and Kenneth Rauwerda prevents the ball from returning to the Tigers end. The ball would bounce for the final time and the Tigers win the set 16 – 14, and the match 3 – 2.
For a team that has captured an AUS championship for the past 24 seasons (each year of Angus’ life), one might think regular season games don’t matter to this team. But they do. The elation in the building is contagious. The players and the home crowd raise their arms in approval of the hard-fought victory, including Angus’ parents.
Angus himself nearly plunges to the ground. His jubilation propel him to Binstock, his legs driving him off the ground for the embrace. The rest of the squad gathers toward them to celebrate.
Proving naysayers wrong
Angus is exchanging pleasantries in the summer with the mother of a kid he instructs at the Waegwoltic Club off of Coburg Road. He’s teaching beach volleyball. Eventually he divulges how he became the man he is today, the setbacks and the triumphs.
“You’ve really seen and done it all, haven’t you?” says the mother. It meant something to Angus. He’s been through a lot.
Occasionally, he meets people he hasn’t seen in years who are stunned to learn that not only is he on a CIS roster, but that a university accepted him to begin with.
The third-year management student hasn’t determined what his future has in store, but he says with a tinge of pride that getting a master’s degree or playing pro overseas would permanently silence the doubters of his past.
“They didn’t see this coming,” he smiles.