Pakmen 18U boys win fifth straight OVA Ontario Championship

By DAVID WINER

There was no chance the Mississauga Pakmen 18U boys were going to be denied a fifth straight OVA Ontario Championship title over the weekend (April 15-17) at Waterloo’s RIM Park.

It was comparable to the long-running Broadway smash hit nobody wanted to see come to an end. An array of stars, even the dominant Pakmen Volleyball Club had never seen come together as one.

And other than a brief scary moment in the gold medal match against Aurora Storm Lightning, the Pakmen accomplished what its core had been striving for since taking to the floor as 14U neophytes in 2012 under the leadership of Ed and Jessica Turalinski. In fact, as if to place an asterisk on how powerful this group has been over the past half decade, they managed to capture six provincial indoor titles in five years by winning both the 17U and 18U OVA crowns last year.

“Winning provincials in my final year of club (ball) does feel different,” said OVA all-star setter Jordan Figueira. “It’s made me very emotional, considering my OVA career is officially over, and grateful to have been given the chance to play with some of the top athletes in Canada for my entire career.”

The group of five-year returnees includes Figueira, Alex Reiner, Andrew Smondulak, Jonathan Reid, Parvir Jhajj and Sharone Vernon-Evans.

“This is the team’s fifth straight career win, excluding last year’s 18u win. And although our bond extends, considering we’ve been with each other the longest, I feel that over the past few weeks, our team has been coming along and really beginning to bond with each other. And going into Nationals, we are feeling very strong.”

Head coach Orest Stanko sees a difference with this group of young men considering it is the last year of club ball for all but two of them.

“There is a sense that this particular team has an opportunity to solidify their legacy as one of, if not, the best team in Pakmen and OVA history,” said Stanko. “The athletes were well aware that winning back-to-back 18U Provincial Championships is an extraordinary accomplishment.”

Making the win that much more satisfying was the fact the Pakmen had to work for it.
After 2-0 sweeps over Bluewater Ballistix, the Ed and Jessica Turalinski-led Mountain Athletic Club and Leaside Thunder 17U, in the first day of pool play, the Pakmen followed with 2-0 decisions over Oakville Lakeside, Pakmen 17U Gold and London’s LVC Heat in the round robin.

Playoff Sunday began much the same way, as Pakmen swept away Leaside Thunder 25-12, 25-23 in the quarter-finals and Scarborough Titans Nemesis 25-13, 25-16 in the semis. However, Storm Lightning weren’t going to allow for a 5-peat without a tussle. After Pakmen won the opener, 25-21, Storm forced a third and deciding set with a 26-24 upset.

“After losing a tough second set, and being down 3-0 in the third set, our team decided to trust in each other, and leave it all out on the court, which shows a lot of maturity and proves that we are a strong group of athletes and are not easily broken down,” said the 6-foot Figueira, who is in his final year of studies at Oakville’s Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.

“Yes, the team was a trifle anxious towards the end of the second set,” added coach Stanko. “At one point we held a 24-21 lead and were poised to close out the victory in two straight sets. Unfortunately, we committed a few, untimely, unforced errors and Storm was able to take advantage. (But) the boys demonstrated their ability to cope with the adversity. It is a testimonial to how much they have matured as athletes and people over the course of the last two years. The third set was approached in business-like fashion (ending at 15-11).”

While there was much on the line for Figueira, Reiner, Smondulak, Reid, Jhajj and Vernon-Evans, first-year star Taryq Sani had just as much to prove.

A member of the Aurora Storm last season, Sani couldn’t fathom crossing the net and shaking hands with his former teammates wearing gold around their necks.

“Defeating my old team was filled with only one emotion…happiness,” said Sani. “That game showed me that I made the right decision in joining Pakmen.

“I was only on Aurora for one year prior to joining Pakmen, and prior to Aurora, I played for Leaside. In comparison to both of my previous clubs, the environment in the Pakmen community is more suited to my personality. So there are no mixed feelings whatsoever, I am proud to have triumphed with my new family.”

A Grade 12 student at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, the Scarborough native often wondered what set the Pakmen apart from their rivals when lining up as an opponent.

“Within the Pakmen family, there is an expectation of excellence, from coaches and alumni, and from teammates,” said the 6-foot-2 outside hitter, who will call the University of Alberta home in the fall. “As an outsider it was hard for me to understand what it is that makes Pakmen seemingly invincible. But (after) having joined the program, I realize that excellence is not solely an expectation, but it is stressed, and it eventually becomes a habit. It is contagious in a way. Each player on the team has complete confidence in one another, something completely unique to anywhere else I have played. I believe that the confidence we have in one another stems from our expectation of excellence.”

Fellow first-year star Jordan Pereira says there’s an added bonus to representing the Pakmen, and that is getting the opportunity to practice with and against them every week throughout the season.

“I always loved the opportunity to face Pakmen, since they were always a very physical team,” said Pereira, who makes the drive to Mississauga from St. Catharines for practices. “As a libero this meant that I would get a lot of opportunities to dig balls. Most teams facing Pakmen would usually come in to the game having nothing to lose, since Pakmen is usually the stronger team. This made teams always play their best against them. But now I get to practice with some of the best attackers in the country, which has elevated my game to a new level.”

And like Sani, Pereira is yet another OVA all-star, as are most of their teammates. Pereira’s game was so advanced early on, he was an 11-year-old on a 14U provincial team.

Head coach Orest Stanko and Pakmen 18u boys champions

Photo credit: Idalina Leandro Photography

The 6-footer, who is a student at St. Catharines’ Eden High School, quickly points out he wasn’t a starter on that squad, which makes “The feeling of winning provincials (this time around) indescribable. This has been one of our goals since the beginning of the season, and to work so hard for something and to achieve it, is an amazing feeling.”
Next stop for the Pakmen are the National championships in Ottawa. After three successive national titles, Pakmen missed out on a first-place showing last year. Something Stanko would like to change this time around.

“We learned (in Waterloo) that as a team we are able to rebound from an adverse situation. This is a valuable team trait and should serve us well at Nationals. Moreover, it also sends a message to other teams that we are mentally strong.”

Should the Pakmen succeed, even Pakmen founder and president Kelly Smith will have to admit this team is one for the ages.

Asked if this team is the best in Pakmen history as club head coach Stanko alluded to, Smith admitted, “That’s a tough one.

“Our 2008 team won u18 Nationals in a final widely considered to be one of the most exciting finals in the past 20 years. We defeated Garth Pischki’s (former National team head coach) Manitoba Bisons, who were previously undefeated. That team had some of the best players in OVA history.

“The past three years Pakmen has fielded very, very strong teams,” concluded Smith. ” But there is certainly an argument that Orest’s team this year may indeed be the best team so far.”

Other members of the powerhouse gold medal winning Pakmen include, Jakson Paterson, Malcolm Prentice, Tomas Sorra, Xander Ketrzynski and assistant coach Karim Khalil.