Stephen Maar is doing something not many Canadians get to do in their entire pro career never mind fresh out of the CIS; jump right into what is arguably the top volleyball league in the world. Last fall, he made a bold first impression on his coaches, team and other top athletes in the league, but he acknowledges he has a lot of growing to do to help his team win. The expectations he sets for himself are always high, but grounded on principle derived from his rewarding experience at McMaster University. We are so excited to follow Maar's career, and it has only just begun! Here he shares the behind the scenes on playing against superstars like Ivan Zaytsev and dealing with the transition of varsity volleyball to a pro career.
Club: Crush Volleyball
University: McMaster University
Professional: Pallavolo Padova
So getting right into it, you left McMaster in your fourth year? Was that always your plan or was that a hard decision?
My time at McMaster was always planned to finish after 5 years, I say this not simply as just my plan but also a developmental plan that was created for me and around me by the coaching staff. Dave Preston orchestrated a developmental plan that gave me a chance to develop, physcially, technically, tactically, and mentally through the years, in order to be successful at the national and then professional level. I will be forever grateful for the work he and my assistant coaches, Nathan Janzan, Dan Russel, and Mohannad Ibrahim did to help get me where I am now. Each of them in conjunction with Dave created an environment to succeed. In their own way each one also gave me advice to pursue my dreams and leave after my 4th year when the chance had presented itself.
It was a hard decision to leave a team that I felt like I had more to give too after our national final loss. I was also very fortunate that my family supported me through university financially, so the decision to get reduced version of my degree was a group one. Having a degree, family support, and coaching / friend support definitely gave me a very positive base to begin my pro career early.
What has the transition been like having to convert volleyball from a varsity experience to a career - how have you been managing those expectations?
The changeover has been an experience to say the least, to go from playing in a student athlete atmosphere and with your community of fellow athletes to crowds of thousands, sponsors, and management behind your team is quite a change. My expectations of being a pro definitely have been exceeded, as your entire life begins to blend within your career, the highs and lows felt on the court are shared with your life and vice versa.
Whereas in university you have school, social functions, among a variety of other “distractions”, pro affords less easy distractions when things aren't going your way. As I continue to develop there is a different kind of joy that I didn't have in CIS volleyball, to feel as you are moving up in your profession is a feeling I love.
"Competition at such a high level does reveal areas in your game that are lacking very fast, and it gets quite apparent when some of the best players in the world are trying to exploit your weaknesses." - Stephen Maar
For those who aren't familiar with the types of leagues in Europe and the level, give us an idea of what is was like getting signed to a team competing in this calibre league.
I did a bunch of goal setting when I was a younger athlete, one of my all time dreams was to maybe get good enough to play in the Italian Superlega. So to be fortunate enough to begin my career in such a league is beyond a dream come true. It is one of the best leagues in the world, has a knowledgable and committed fan base, and is a great league for technical development. These are all great things in itself, but lastly being able to live in a beautiful country with such a rich culture and heritage is a bonus for the history lover in me.
What has it been like competing against athletes like Ivan Zaytsev?
It has been a really cool experience as I am a self-proclaimed volley nerd, to now play against people I grew up watching is amazing. It develops a deeper sense of confidence when you succeed against some of the best players in the world. Competition at such a high level does reveal areas in your game that are lacking very fast and it gets quite apparent when some of the best players in the world are trying to exploit your weaknesses.
You mentioned you have an upcoming match against Milano, and Nick Hoag plays for that team. Do you joke about being rivals or what is the camaraderie like?
I am fortunate to have been able to play for the senior national team a couple times this past summer so meeting and developing some relationships with guys who are already overseas and have spent some years here has been really helpful. That being said I do keep in contact with some of the guys my own age as well and have a fun time checking in with each other, in fact I ran into Jordan Nowakowski at a gas station in the middle of Italy! So fun little events like this make Canada seem not as far away. I try to tune in and watch some of the guys whether it is domestic competition or champions league, but on the court it is about winning.
What are you hoping to get out of this season, and if you have already, what goals have you set for your next season?
This season my goal is to make the playoffs, and be a top 5 point scorer as a receiver in the league, both are very lofty especially in the Italian championship but it helps keep me focused and gives me measurable things to set myself against. For me next season is really a world away so I haven't given it much thought, I will definitely begin some goal setting once I complete this year and have returned home.