Pakmen Earn Top Grades on Their Mid-Season Report Card
By DAVID WINER
Winning tradition? Maybe in time.
Winning culture? Most definitely!
Whether you are a member of the Mississauga Pakmen 13U or 14U team aspiring to be the best, or a member of the graduating 18U team, hoping to pass the torch with an exclamation mark, the Pakmen mentality is one and the same – striving to be one’s best.
Midway through the 2015-16 indoor season, with the McGregor Cup as the measuring stick, the Pakmen are destined for yet another historical volleyball journey. One that may match, or even eclipse, last year’s haul of five provincial and one national title.
With the recently wrapped up McGregor Cup as the guide, the Pakmen accounted for five gold and two silver medals, out of a possible 10 divisions.
“I don’t think coaches, or our kids, feel any pressure to win because previous teams have won,” said Pakmen founder and president Kelly Smith. “But I do think the successes of previous and current teams creates a culture of winning.
Compare the boys’ 14U and 18U entries for instance.
The 14U Pakmen embraced their gold medal triumph at Maxwell Heights in Oshawa on Feb. 6, with all the exuberance and wide-eyed joy of relative neophytes to tournament battles, while the 18U Pakmen preferred to continue focusing on the big prize after their Jan. 30 victory in Markham, which would assure the team’s core of FIVE consecutive OVA (Ontario Volleyball Association) titles.
“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. So it’s a huge mental game to always continue playing the way we play,” is how captain Parvir Jhajj explained the pressures of always being on top midway through last year’s 17U championship run.
Pakmen 18U Boys
This indoor season has been a time of adjustment, a feeling out process, for a team of all-stars looking for that magical fifth straight OVA crown.
Three stars from other OVA clubs have joined Orest Stanko’s team to create a juggernaut, that up ’til recently, was still looking to find its way.
Signs of exceptionalism bubbled to the surface at the Winter Championships at Chicago’s McCormick Place Jan. 16-18. Congregated in the Windy City against 68 of the top teams in North America, the Pakmen proved last year’s triumph by the men who graduated before them, was no fluke by reaching the final before succumbing 15-25, 25-17, 21-19 to Bay to Bay of San Jose, California.
To reach the gold medal final, the Pakmen knocked off nine squads from Iowa, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina and Virginia.
“It was good to win gold at the (McGregor) and especially to defeat Aurora Storm in the semi-final. Although, it is an asterisked win since Aurora dressed only six players,” said Stanko of the triumph in Markham and a win over Aurora, which had defeated them earlier in the season.
“The more significant performance was at the Boys Winter Classic Tournament in Chicago where we finished second and were able to experiment with a new lineup. The area that still needs a lot of improvement is our block/defense alignment – slotting players in different positions. In Chicago we moved Taryq (Sani) from his customary left-side hitting position to right-side to enable a more dynamic back-court attack.”
Sani is one of the three new faces, along with libero Jordan Pereira and middle Xander Ketrzynski, who join returning stalwarts Sharone Vernon-Evans, Tomas Sorra, Jordan Figueira, Alex Reiner, Parvir Jhajj, Malcolm Prentice, Jak Paterson, Jonathan Reid, Andrew Smondulak and assistant coach Karim Khalil.
“Xander is a 6-foot-8, 16-year-old middle who played for (Toronto) Interclub last year, and was a member of (the) 2015 Team Ontario 16U boys team; Taryq Sani transferred from Aurora Storm and was a member of (the) 2015 Team Ontario 18U boys team; Jordan Pereira transferred from Niagara Rapids (club opted not to have an 18U team), and was a member of (the) 2015 Team Ontario 18U boys team.
“Yes, a fairly significant turnover,” explained Stanko, “But, as you can see, we acquired elite, high-performance players.”
It’s a team focused, but not spooked, or nervous, about the task at hand.
“We have a very mature team that is well aware of what we are on the cusp of accomplishing,” said Stanko. “I don’t sense that there is any added pressure to win another Provincial Championship. The team demonstrated in Chicago that it is capable of raising its level of play in pressure situations. So I don’t think that we, as a coaching staff, need to do anything special to ‘teach them to revel’ in the possibility of five straight.
“Ten out of 12 of our players are playing their last year of rep volleyball, and they all appreciate what is at stake both provincially and nationally.”
Outstanding setter, and OVA all-star Figueira echoes Stanko’s sentiments and the players’ steadfast ways.
“Our team is constructed of many very skilled and very confident players, and we don’t get very nervous when it comes to winning provincials or any other tournament because we trust in each other and know if we all play together as a team, we have a very good chance of winning,” said Figueira, who along with Jhajj, Vernon-Evans, Smondulak and Reiner, have been with the team all five years.
“In regards to keeping positive thoughts within our team, it ultimately comes from the players. We all have each others’ backs and when one player feels down, the rest of the team steps in to help that player out.”
According to Figueira, winning in Markham was big psychologically after losing to the Storm in the previous OVA tournament, followed by an impressive, yet incomplete, result in Chicago.
“In regards to Aurora Storm, it was definitely good to have beat them.
“It was good to get our team morale back up and get back on the winning side of things.”
However, “it was an amazing experience playing against some of the top teams in USA and seeing where we stand next to the best in the States. Also, it was a great team experience and it really brought our team together, especially after losing the previous tournament,” summed up Figueira.
Pakmen 16U Boys
Coach Jessy Satti was proud with the character his 16U boys showed on Feb. 6 at the Milton Velodrome, culminating in a 25-23, 25-14 victory over Aurora Storm Inferno in the gold medal match.
It started out as a less than ideal tournament with an opening 21-25, 25-16, 12-15 loss to Niagara Rapids.
“We had a rough pool play match and ended up finishing second in our pool,” explained Satti. “We got caught in a tough bracket playing really strong teams in the quarters, semis, and finals. (But) the boys came out with so much energy and fire. I was incredibly proud of the way they played. They dug themselves in a bit of a hole after pool play, and managed to dig themselves out and play some phenomenal volleyball.”
After the opening loss to Niagara, Pakmen got back on their feet defeating the Thundercats of Richmond Hill, 25-15, 25-10, the Waterloo Predators 25-16, 25-22, and Durham Attack, 25-11, 27-25.
“Winning a hard-fought tournament like that gives us a lot more confidence in the future and brings us all closer as a team,” said setter Saad Shaikh.
A future that will undoubtedly feature more tough matches against arch rivals and provincial title threats Durham, Waterloo and Niagara.
“Well the biggest threat is ourselves,” said Shaikh. “We have to work hard at practice like we are a fifth-place team. There is always ways to improve and we just want to be the best.”
Of all the Pakmen teams, the bond may be strongest among Satti’s squad, with so many of the players attending school together and residing in the same neighborhood.
In fact, Shaikh, left side Matthew Chueng, right side Avy Bath and middle Arjun Selhi attend Mississauga Secondary School, with Shaikh playing on the senior team, Cheung and Bath playing for the juniors, and Selhi, the junior captain, getting some playing time with the seniors.
As a group, they helped Mississauga win both the senior and junior Region of Peel titles, with the junior title taking place against teammates setter Gurnoor Bath, right side Vikas Ravendra and middle Matthew Powell from the neighboring St. Marcellinus Catholic Secondary.
Other team members include, left side Thomas Williams and middle Tyler Pavelic, who attend Mississauga’s Loyola Secondary, left side/libero Martin Matov, middle Alec Dragnea, libero Brendan Chan and left side Connor McLaughlin.
“On our team all the guys are extremely close together,” says Shaikh. “The thing we all have in common (other than being neighbors) is that we want to be the best, plain and simple. As the captain of the team I have to make sure everyone is focused because when we aren’t putting in 100 per cent, there is another team that is. It makes me mad to think that someone else is working harder than me.”
Teammate Selhi says all the players look up to their captain.
“Saad, our captain, is one of the key people on our team as he understands me and multiple people on the team and has a good volleyball IQ,” he said.
“We hang out with each other because we are best friends as we are so close we can be called brothers.”
Pakmen 15U Boys
The Pakmen seemed well on their way to joining their comrades on the podium at the OVA championships last year.
Seeded No. 1 in the province throughout the indoor season, prospects took a turn for the worse, when pivotal setter Saqib Shaikh dislocated his thumb a week prior to the OVA finals.
“We were undefeated Friday and Saturday during Provincials,” recalled teammate Peter Rugosi. “(But) Saturday night I got sick with the stomach flu and was up until 6 a.m., so I was in no shape to play on Sunday.”
So, instead of looking at gold, the luster faded slightly over the final 24 hours, resulting in a bronze medal showing.
“This year, we picked up five new players,” says head coach Kelly Smith, “and all have made a positive impact on the team. All are hard workers, coachable, and team-first people.”
“They fit in like they have been part of the team for years,” agrees the 5-foot-10 Rugosi, who serves as the team’s captain.
“To be honest, I have no pressure at all with the five new players on the court because they are all very skilled players and are always willing to give 110 per cent effort on the court. We all (old and new players) work really well as a team.”
A prime example of the team’s cohesion occurred in the team’s McGregor Cup gold medal performance on Feb. 20. Beginning with 25-23, 25-14 and 25-17, 25-15 wins over LVC Heat and MAC respectively in pool play, the Pakmen proceeded to defeat Markham Revolution 25-16, 25-11 in the quarters; Venom Vipers 25-12, 25-14 in the semi-finals; and Aurora Storm Riptide, 25-21, 25-12 in the final.
“We were pleased with our performance,” said Smith of his team’s McGregor Cup victory. “The guys are starting to play as a unit and focus well throughout entire matches.
“They are also making better decisions on the court and minimizing unforced errors,” added Smith, who is assisted by Franco Rugosi, Andrew Ceolin and Alex Ketrzynski. “This team has a strong work ethic and their hard work and dedication is starting to pay off. We still need to work on playing to win, during pressure situations, and not hesitating or playing ‘not to lose’.
New team members include left sides Jonathan Li and Josh Pereira, middle blocker Nic Basilio, middle Tevin Bramwell and setter Trent Ketrzynski. They join returnees Shaikh, defensive specialists Karman Nahal and Harjot Chatel, middle blocker Luca Nastase, left sides Mark Dildar and Rugosi, setter Saqib Shaikh, right sides Sebastien Martin-Demers and Talha Kahloan and setter Ashraf Shaikh.
Basilio joins the Pakmen after starring for three seasons with the Georgetown Impact.
A Grade 9 student at Georgetown’s Christ the King Secondary School, Basilio realized immediately why the Pakmen are so successful, resulting in three golds, a silver, and a bronze in five tournaments this season.
“I feel that the intensity at Pakmen is much (higher),” said the 6-foot-2 middle. “But, at the same time, I am having a lot more fun with my teammates.
“I am learning so much more at every practice and tournament,” added Basilio, who lists passing, defense and his height advantage at middle, as his greatest attributes. “The work we get, with such experienced coaches, is great.”
Rugosi’s wholeheartedly agrees with Basilio.
“We have matured physically and mentally,” says Rugosi, a Grade 9 student at Etobicoke’s Bishop Allen Academy, “but it’s more than that. Our team has gotten closer together – we are almost like family, which helps with our team chemistry in games and overall.
“We like hanging out together. Lots of friendly camaraderie and mutual respect for each other.”
Still, Rugosi realizes most teams the Pakmen are competing against are gelling as the season advances, and he has his eyes focused on one particular adversary.
“Everyone is getting stronger, but the team that poses the biggest immediate challenge is Storm, because compared to last year, they have matured much more physically and mentally and have better team chemistry this year.”
Pakmen 14U Boys
The 14U squad is well on its way to displaying the camaraderie of the 16U
players and the winning ways of the 18U stars.
“It has been a phenomenal season thus far,” says head coach Thomas Leca. “The team is undefeated winning their first three tournaments of the year in the OVA.”
At Maxwell Heights in Oshawa, the Pakmen managed to win all their sets, beginning with a 25-17, 25-19 win over Niagara Rapids and a 25-16, 25-20 victory over Markham Unity. In playoff action, the Pakmen defeated London’s Forest City Green 25-16, 25-23, Windsor Sky Volley 25-17, 25-17 and Aurora Storm Voltage, in the gold medal match, 25-21, 25-21.
“(The McGregor Cup) was especially challenging,” said Leca, “because it was our first premier tournament of the year, seeing the top nine teams from around Ontario. To go the whole tournament without dropping a set was very special and a testament to the incredible work ethic, focus, and camaraderie these boys are demonstrating on a weekly basis!”
Leca, who pointed to the “special performances” of Dan Torres, Davis Young, Ishaan Thandi, captain Harjas Chahal, and Jamie Ha, at this particular tournament, felt “The gold medal is just a measure of how our technical, tactical, and mental development has improved in practice.
“Our ultimate goal is to win a Provincial or National championship. That’s what these boys are focused on and I think that’s what the team is driven towards,” added Leca. “One of the players told me last week, ‘Coach, I would trade all of our medals this year for a chance to play in the Provincial championship game in Waterloo on April 8th.’ I think that sums up the mentality of our group.”
Leca also made a special note of “giving most of the credit,” to everyone around him and the team “for making our early season success possible.”
The list includes assistant coach James Gomez, technical coach Lennard Krapp, club head coach Stanko, president Smith, Satti from the club’s indoor/beach development program, and the coaches at VCCE Mississauga.
“This invaluable group has overseen the “grand plan” of these athletes and has created the opportunity to have them succeed on and off the court.”
The other contributing team members include, middle Alec Loney, setter Owen Jacobs, right side Alex Szolno, middle Sebastian Mawhiney, left side Marko Fleger, left side Matthew Tint and middle Kevin Leo.
With six new faces on the team this year, including Tint, Mawhiney, Ha, Szolno, Leo and Jacobs, Leca has planned a lot of team outings to develop cohesion and unity.
“Our coaches have worked on team building outside the gym as well by having a team excursion to Sky Zone and then a team potluck where we analyzed videos of our past games,” said Thandi. “These team-building activities have impacted how we have come together as a team off and on the court.”
Thandi, a Grade 8 student at Mississauga’s Lisgar Middle School, adds it was initially a “challenge, but after about the first two weeks of practice we started to come together and really started to build trust in each other. We all have common goals – to improve as individuals, as a team, and of course, win.”
Speaking of winning, the players and coaches were in agreement that the McGregor Cup was the team’s biggest challenge to date.
“(It) was by far the team’s biggest challenge, as we were facing the top teams in Ontario as well as a faster paced game,” added the 6-foot Thandi. “It turned out to be an amazing experience because we were facing much better competition. We also learned that no game is ever easy. In the end, we did not lose a set in the tournament which speaks to how much depth we have on our team.
“I believe we are winning because we all work hard in practice and players are committed to improving themselves,” added Thandi. “We also trust each other, which is very important when you have equal playing time where each player on the team has to play. What sets our team aside from other teams is that we never get down on each other. We are always talkative on the court and on the bench, as well as giving each other positive encouragement.”
“The last four teams were fairly even,” added teammate Young, “and it came down to who wanted it more. Our coaches also stress that we need to ‘Stay humble, but hungry!’ They require us to work hard and practice with purpose. But also tell us that we must believe we can be the No. 1 team in Ontario this year.
“I find the most important thing this year that makes us united is that we are encouraged to be ourselves on the court,” continued Young, “but that also brings us together.”
And like teammate Thandi, Young, a Grade 8 setter out of Georgetown, says Leca’s pep talks resonate with the players.
“Coach Tom says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
“He always says in practice, ‘Someone, somewhere is working harder than you right now. When you play them, they will beat you.’ This motivates us to be the ones working the hardest.”
Pakmen 18U Girls
The 18U girls gave Pakmen their lone gold medalists on the ladies’ side in McGregor Cup action this season.
Competing at the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus on Jan. 30, the Pakmen defeated Phoenix Legacy, 18-25, 25-22, 15-10 in the gold medal final. That followed a 25-22, 22-25, 15-10 decision over Pakmen 17U in the semi-finals.
And, after losing to the same team in last year’s 17U OVA final, there is plenty of drive and focus on Mike Albert’s team this year. That’s why there was some extra special meaning to defeating the Pakmen in the semis.
“Pakmen 17U have been one of our toughest competitors and our matches are always high spirited on both sides of the net,” said Albert. “The Pakmen girls teams are becoming very competitive at all age groups.”
Members of the 18U team include assistant coach Pat Daniels, and players Mady Timpany, Jessica Lam, Cailin Wark, Lauren Veltman, Kristen Burns, Julia Krebs, Melissa Langegger, Emma Armstrong, Janelle Albert, Brenna McArthur and Julia Balatbat.
And while a tournament victory in January hardly compares to gold in April at the OVA finals in Milton, Albert is certainly pleased with the effort his players are putting into practice and competition this indoor season.
“Measuring team progress can be falsely hidden behind a tournament victory,” said Albert, in reference to the gold medal showing. “Reflecting on our team at the mid-point, I remember all the hard work we’ve done to date and the many areas (where) we’ve improved. Certainly our blocking stands out with noticeable progress. Our girls realize the work is far from done and they seem ready for more. They are a very close group of girls who are committed to improve individually and as a team. Their strong characters, combined with their hard work, positive attitude and love for one another, is providing an amazing experience for everyone.”
Pakmen 17U Girls
After winning both the 16U and 17U OVA championships last season, much is expected of the squad this year.
Alicia Lam, and her teammates, would relish the opportunity of mirroring last year’s showing and enjoying that euphoric double gold experience again.
“When winning both provincials back-to-back it made our dreams come true,” said Lam. “Most players cannot say they’ve won a provincials, let alone two. Our drive and passion is what led us to victory.
“Winning two provincial cups last year was an amazing experience,” she added. “But it also set expectations. After such great success, it set the bar. It’s not that there is a target on our back, but there is the pressure to have the same outcome. When playing against other teams we know they will compete and give us their ‘A’ game.”
Their competitors certainly haven’t made things easy for the Pakmen early on. But, after a slow start to the indoor campaign, the Pakmen are showing signs of finding their legs, after a silver medal performance on Jan. 16 at the McGregor Cup, hosted by the Brock Badgers.
With straight set wins against Burlington’s Defensa (25-14, 26-24); Toronto’s Meegga (25-14, 25-18); Aurora Storm Typhoon (25-21, 25-18); and London Intensity (25-17, 25-18), Pakmen lost a heart-breaker to Aurora Storm Vortex in the final, 25-21, 16-25, 17-15.
“What was great about the tournament, was we played a couple teams that had beat us earlier in the year when we were still finding our team identity and this time in the playoff rounds, we executed the game plan great and came out on top quite easily,” said Pakmen head coach Tyler Robinson. “It showed improvement from weekend to weekend, which is always what you want to see as a coach.”
Asked about the difference between winning and losing the decisive 17-15 set, Robinson explained, “the difference between gold and silver was having the confidence to take a risk and make a play rather than play it safe. However, that is also a teaching/learning point for the athletes that we can correct for next time out.”
Players looking to make it gold next time around, include Julia Wiercigroch, Beth Rohde, Tristan Peterson, Lucy Glen-Carter, Annette Kowara, Kia Skeete, Madison Ro, Caitlin Le, Angela Henein, Lam and Danielle Grabowski.
“I was happy with our level of play throughout the day,” concluded Robinson.
“I’m never happy with a loss like any competitive person. But, we did a lot of good things and are getting better each and every tournament. We are definitely on the right trajectory to peak at the right time in April and May (at Provincials). We’ve been working hard on our passing and execution under stress, pressure, and physical exhaustion at practice since then, so hopefully we’ll see results at the Bugarski Cup (Feb. 20, which ended with a bronze medal).”
Lam says she and her teammates don’t mind putting in the extra work, if it gives them the chance to vie for more gold.
“There is the constant pressure of coming out on top this year, but that just makes us want it more,” she said. “I know it will be challenging, but by accomplishing it, it will make the reward even better. I channel that pressure and the expectations and use it as a positive message to myself. It drives me to work hard and develop as a player to make sure I’m giving my best all the time to my teammates.”