Pakmen 17U boys survive slip to win fourth straight Ontario title
With each and every championship, the Mississauga Pakmen have seen an increasingly large and burdensome target forming on their collective backs.
Entering this past weekend’s (April 10-12) Boys 17u Ontario Championships at RIM Park in Waterloo, the pressure seemed unbearable for a team seeking its fourth successive championship.
And on the court, the Pakmen conceded something they hadn’t for as long as they could recall — losing not one, but two sets. Yet, when it came time to present the championship, a familiar group of young men were clutching the trophy, perhaps a little more firmly than ever before.
“Yes, you are correct, the team had a target on its back,” admitted head coach Orest Stanko. “We (coaches) could certainly sense that there was some nervousness from the very outset. “To put this in perspective,” he added, “we entered the championships undefeated in 17U tournament play and in fact had not lost a set. So, there definitely was pressure on the team to continue its dominant play. At the same time, other teams entered the championship with a ‘nothing to lose’ approach when playing us, which creates a dangerous situation.”
Perhaps, that is why 6-foot setter Jordan Figueira from Oakville’s Saint Thomas Aquinas declared while, “every time we have won, it has felt amazing, this tournament felt sweeter than in any other year, because each year the competition gets tougher.”
And this time around, there didn’t seem to be an easy opponent in any of the nine matches the Pakmen played, especially on the final day.
“Virtually every team that we played throughout the weekend found ways to challenge us and create pressure situations,” said Stanko. “But the last three matches in Sunday’s playoff round, were by far our most difficult.”
After a 26-24, 25-19 victory over Kitchener Waterloo Predators Purple in the quarter-finals, the Pakmen then faced their toughest challenge in the semi-finals against the Ottawa Maverick Desperados, finally prevailing 22-25, 25-14, 15-12.
“In my opinion the semi-final versus the Mavericks was by far our most challenging match,” said Stanko. “For the first time this season we lost the first set. However, the team showed its resolve and stormed back in the second and third sets.”
And, after a difficult 27-25 win over Aurora Storm Lightning in the opening set of the final, Pakmen seemed to break their opponent’s confidence in the second set, winning 25-16.
“Against those teams I felt the nerves, and I’m sure some of my teammates did as well,” admitted Figueira. “But we helped each other get through the tough games, to persevere and play our hardest.”
That will to win was apparent to Stanko as well. “Our nervousness notwithstanding, I felt that the team showed a great deal of resiliency and was able to deal with difficult circumstances. We made many uncharacteristic, unforced errors, but at the same time, when needed, individuals made spectacular plays to enable us to win key points and ultimately the set and match.”
Club founder and president Kelly Smith, offered that it was in anticipation of such hurdles that the club recruited Stanko two years ago. “I knew the team would face a lot of pressure because they have never lost a provincial championship. It (also) gets harder each year because teams start picking up players from other teams to become ‘super teams’. But I was also confident, because getting teams to play well at the right time of the season, in every possible situation, is what Orest is known for. He’s got years of experience, he’s seen it all — and more championship titles than anyone.”
No doubt Stanko’s calming influence after decades of university, provincial and national team experience had an impact. But, according to captain Parvir Jhajj, so did the thrill of playing in stressful situations. “Going into any tournament ranked No. 1 is difficult because every team there is after you and always plays to the best of their abilities against us,” said Jhajj. “So it’s a huge mental game to always continue playing the way we play. “After dropping a set in the semi-finals it was kind of nerve wracking, but we had to re-group as a team and get back into it.”
And just like legendary college basketball coach John Wooden said, “Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there,” Jhajj added, “There’s something about big tournaments that gets our team clicking!” Stanko stresses that “something” Jhajj was referring to is preparation. “I am exceedingly proud of every athlete on the team,” he said. “It has been, and continues to be, a privilege to coach this group. I know that not everyone received the amount of playing time that they might have wished or felt that they deserved. As coaches we have to make difficult decisions regarding starting lineups. However, there is absolutely no doubt that our success is based on the contribution that everyone makes and especially in practice. Too often in a team sport environment we allocate too much attention and over-indulge on “star” players, or the “starting lineup”. On our team the level of intensity and competition demonstrated in practices has enabled us to cope with difficult, in-match situations and that is a direct reflection of the contribution that all 12 athletes have made on our team as well as the improvement that each athlete has made since the beginning of the year.”
And while it was truly a team effort, Stanko gave special praise to the play of middle Malcolm Prentice and left side Sharone Vernon-Evans. Other members of the championship team include Jonathan Reid, Jak Paterson, Tomas Sorra, Liam Butchereit, Alex Reiner, Tucker Johnson, Andrew Simon, Joel Lillycrop and assistants Phillip Rodrigues, Karim Khalil and Aleksander Mamuzic.
Prior to Sunday’s play, the Pakmen defeated Durham Attack Black 25-15, 25-17; the Predators 25-19, 25-17; London LVC Fire Heat 25-12, 20-25, 15-5; Leaside Thunder 25-11, 25-11; Aurora Storm Lightning 25-14, 25-19; and Scarborough STVC Nemesis 25-19, 25-17.
After participating in the upcoming Provincial 18U championships, the Pakmen will represent Ontario at the National Championships, May 17-19 in Calgary.