On an evening dominated by thundering applause and the game of volleyball, it was no surprise that Denis Zhukov came away with the biggest prize of the night. The third-year outside hitter from Almaty, Kazakhstan, received Male Athlete of the Year honours, beating out tough competition from swimmer Rick Say, football player Greg Hoover and wrestlers David Kooperberg and Mike Stitt.
"When you get to be Player of the Year in the CIS, you have odds on chances to win," said men's volleyball Head Coach Greg Ryan. "I'm very happy for Denis, he deserves the award."
Zhukov carried the Dinos on his back en route to a fifth-place finish in the country. He was at the core of an inexperienced team, a squad that was pegged by most to miss the playoffs as the majority of the 2000/01 team had graduated.
"We got fifth place, but I expected more from the team. Next year will be even better. It's pretty much the same group staying, same team," said Zhukov. "I did more stuff than last year, had more control of the game. The team was so inexperienced so there were no high expectations like my first two years. We had less pressure."
Most of Zhukov's pressure this season has been from his GPA as he tries to get into the Faculty of Management in the fall of 2002. And while he put up academic all-Canadian numbers in the fall semester, he admits his winter marks will be "interesting."
"I can't study on a game day," he laughed. "I can't even concentrate, it's hopeless. Everyone takes their books on the trips but I don't open them. I tried so many times, but it's just open and close."
Zhukov says he has to do all his homework when volleyball isn't a distraction.
"Sundays are busy," he grinned.
In only his third year in Canada, he is finally starting to put everything together. Coach Ryan admits Zhukov's English has improved considerably and he's acclimatizing well in his new surroundings.
"I'm beginning to understand his sense of humour more," smirked Ryan. "He's very funny.
"He also trains differently--last summer he worked on his back with an Iranian weightlifting coach. It seems to work. Given the number of repetitions he gets every season it's a wonder he's never injured."
Ryan admitted he's learned a lot from his Kazakh prodigy.
"If I was a player I would pick his brain all the time. He has more moves than a can of worms--he can hit in so many ways. I don't think I've seen a player hit like him since Randy Gingera. There's a point when a player starts to understand where he is and what he's capable of doing. Then you just step back, get out of his way, let him play."
Zhukov flourished as the centerpiece of the Dinos' offence and led the country with 4.44 kills per game in the tough Canada West Conference. But even more impressive than his numbers was his consistent play.
"An off night for him is 32 per cent," said coach Ryan of Zhukov's kill efficiency. "Most guys would love to have an efficiency like that. His numbers could be even higher, but he has all the crap sets to kill too."