Pakmen brush off pesky WASPS to win provincial 16u gold

 

By David Winer

Every now and then a championship season can be traced to a single, game-changing moment. For the Pakmen 16u boys, such a dramatic reversal in fortunes pivoted on one of their most embarrassing sets of the season. A result, that could have sent the entire season’s hopes and dreams careening out of control. Silver medalists at two previous Ontario Championships, any kind of a medal seemed unthinkable after barely scraping by Ottawa Fusion at this past weekend’s (April 17-19) quarter-finals at RIM Park in Waterloo.

“In our quarter-final matchup against a 13th seeded Ottawa Fusion, we had a bit of a scare,” explained captain Navreet Singh Suhan. “We had dropped a set in convincing fashion to a team we were expected to lay the hammer down on. “Everyone was down, confidence was low and it felt as if that No. 1 in Ontario title was well out of our reach.”

Head coach Aleksander Mamuzic admitted to “chewing them out,” after the 25-17, 19-25, 15-6 victory. “I told them they had to go find a quiet place and figure out what they needed to change, because if they played the same way versus the Mavericks and WASPS, as they did with Fusion, the tournament wouldn’t end the way we wanted it to.” What followed led Mamuzic to think even more highly of his respected captain. “This is where (he) took control of the team,” said Mamuzic. “They called each other out on their mistakes and promised each other that they would step up their performance.”

“We found an empty change room in the venue and for close to an hour we discussed things we could improve in our game — not only physically, but mentally,” recalled Suhan. “And as I looked at everyone, I could realize that we all wanted the same thing, that Provincial gold (medal) around our necks. “The next time we stepped on the court we played our hearts out, one of our best games of the season occurred in those semi-finals and it was because we didn’t just play as friends or teammates, but rather we came together and played as brothers.”

Teammate Deman Dulat expounded on that closed-door meeting. “Everyone spoke one-by-one, talking about the team’s weaknesses and strengths,” said the starting left side. “After that chat, everyone was ready to play. No one was scared, and we all played with our hearts.”

What followed were straight-set sweeps of the Ottawa Maverick Longhorns (25-21, 25-19) and the No. 1 ranked Markham WASPS (25-20, 25-15). Until the weekend, the WASPS had the Pakmen’s number defeating them in all three previous meetings. “This team had seemed to always find a way in breaking us down and even outplaying us, so we, as a team, realized we needed to bring our best performance and then some,” said Suhan, the team’s starting middle, and a Grade 10 student at Mississauga Secondary School. “The opponents played great, but we simply just played better from all aspects and angles.”

And while that meeting helped bring cohesion to the team more than any other time this year, Suhan stressed the 24-year-old Mamuzic’s guidance was the biggest factor in their success. “Aleksandar Mamuzic’s ability to coach is often overlooked because of his young age. Many people might feel he lacks experience, but he understands the game so well, and is able to share his knowledge with us exceptionally well all while caring for his players to the most.”

Suhan also had high praise for assistant Diem Huynh. “It is hard to put in words what he has done for us and how he has elevated our game throughout the year. He is so gifted in understanding the game tactically it is really unfair. He is simply a master, a legend, a Pablo Picasso of his kind.”

To a man, Suhan and Dulat added the players quite literally found their voices on the weekend when huddled in the change room. “Our team has struggled with making noise and cheering,” explained Dulat. “The bench would be upset because they were not on the court, or we were always down and just gave up in the match. This time, we made it a priority to get loud to send a message to other teams that the Pakmen were hungry for the Provincial gold.” “After losing in the finals for two consecutive years, we got tired and agreed to step it up. Everyone pitched in and brought out their best performance. We all had a job, and that was to win!” “Throughout my Pakmen career, I’ve always been so close, but yet so far from being at the top of the podium. It felt outstanding to finally hug my parents and say ‘I’m a Provincial Champion now’.”

Like Dulat, winning his first provincial title will always have a special meaning in Suhan’s heart. “It means a lot to me because I can put myself in the same group as other Pakmen players who have won numerous championships,” said Suhan. “I can finally say I made my parents proud. They have been my No. 1 supporters from the day I first picked up a volleyball in Grade 6. After falling short numerous times, it felt so amazing to hug my parents after that final whistle blew in the gold medal match on Sunday.”

Along with Suhan, and Dulat, who coach Mamuzic said, “played lights out in the finals, passing amazingly and getting big points at crucial times,” the coach also had special words for right side Andrew Cianci. “He had an amazing game in the semis and put up some amazing blocks and huge spikes.” Mamuzic said it will take more of the same to have any success at the upcoming national championships in Calgary. “The boys just need to stay focused and keep working hard,” he said. “I explained to them that it’s great that they won, but the season isn’t over yet. There’s only one thing better than winning provincials, and that’s winning nationals.”

Other members of the Ontario gold medalists, include Pranshu Patel, Matthew Luxton, Cem Torun, Michael Korzeniewski, Harnoor Grewal, Jordan Baric, Andriy Sozanskyy, Michael Kong and Bryn de Chastelain.

Prior to the playoffs, the Pakmen defeated the Waterloo Tigers, Ottawa Fusion, Cobourg NBVC, Leaside Thunder and Kitchener Predators the previous two days.