Pakmen find a way to improve on greatness

By DAVID WINER

It’s a fool’s game to argue over the success of the Pakmen Volleyball Club.

Considering its seemingly boundless rise over the past 13 years, any debate would be more a matter of knit picking than arguing. The winners of 20 provincial and 10 national titles, the Pakmen are one of the most successful volleyball organizations in the country.

Yet, club founder Kelly Smith had the foresight last season to determine the Pakmen could improve at an even faster pace by hiring Orest Stanko. And what has transpired since the former University of Toronto head coach was brought in as the club’s new head coach, has been nothing less than dramatic. The club’s arrow of success is pointing straight up if recent accomplishments are any indication.

In mid-January, the club’s 17-under rep team captured the prestigious Can Am Challenge in Rochester, sweeping through the 30-team tournament undefeated.

At the same time, the 18u Pakmen were victorious at the 64-team Winter Championships in Chicago. They followed that up two weeks later by becoming one of the first Ontario Volleyball Association representative to win two USVA tournaments in the same season by returning triumphantly from the Nittany Ninvitational in Pennsylvania. The 17-under Ms Pakmen recently became the first team ever to win the OVA’s 17u Grand Prix Championship. Most teams in the club (boys and girls) are ranked first in Ontario.

“Orest has been a tremendous asset to our club,” said Smith, whose Pakmen benefited from the Quest for Gold wage subsidy program to hire him. “(He) has helped professionalize our club in ways we didn’t even think of before.

“Imagine having the guy who ran the most successful men’s volleyball program in OUA (Ontario University Athletics) history working full time to make your club and your players better? It’s like a dream come true.”

The 62-year-old Toronto native coached the University of Toronto Blues for 23 years, guiding them to 14 division titles and a record 13 OUA championships.

For his efforts, Stanko was inducted into the university’s hall of fame as both a coach and builder. Stanko later joined the OVA as one of its Board of Directors from 1998-2005, and as its Executive Director from 2006-10, while also serving as a coach for several beach and indoor provincial and national teams.

Stanko also served as the Executive Director of Canoe and Kayak Ontario, as well as the President and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Emergency Preparedness, but he never strayed too far from the love of his life — volleyball.

“Volleyball has been an incredibly important part of my life,” explained Stanko. “Most of the life-long relationships that I have developed have been because of the sport. The ‘job’ is not really a job. It’s an opportunity to participate in a sport that I love and hopefully continue to make a difference in the lives of young athletes. “And, I really like Kelly,” Stanko concluded. “I don’t think I could say ‘no’ to him.”

A graduate of St. Michael’s College, before getting his B.A. in Political Science/Economics at York University, and M.A. in Political Science (International Relations) at the U of T, Stanko, ironically, is not the most accomplished member of his family.

Older brother Andrew was a member of Canada’s national team, who competed at the 1971 Pan-American Games in Cali, Colombia. At the same time, Orest represented Team Ontario at the Canada Games in Saskatoon, where he met his wife to be Xenie, a member of the Ontario women’s team.

Despite being involved in the sport most of his life, taking on the job of coaching 1,500 youngsters of all ages and abilities, is novel to even Stanko.

“It will take some time to evolve and identify what is in fact the most beneficial way to take advantage of this position and where the focus should be allocated,” admitted Stanko. “Having said that, I think that the head coaching position should be responsible for several key areas:

1. Mentoring other Pakmen club coaches;

2. Identifying ways to attract more participants to help the club grow;

3. Development of a club-specific athlete development pathway that is based on the Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), but which also takes into account the unique aspects of the club and its membership and;

4. Ultimately help coaches and athletes achieve their volleyball objectives.”

To that end, Stanko coaches his 17u Pakmen three times a week, while also taking in a minimum of seven other rep team practices. Weekends are reserved for attending tournaments on Saturdays and attending the Volleyball Canada Centre of Excellence on Sundays.

It was due to Stanko’s appointment, that Volleyball Canada approached Smith to seek permission to operate the Centre at the Pakmen club in Mississauga.

“Obviously I am hands on with my own team,” said Stanko. “With respect to other teams, I play more of an assist role and provide suggestions/recommendations to the coaches. Also, on some occasions, I will conduct drills. But this is only when another coach requests that I lead his/her team during practice.”

Smith, who says he can now spend more time on club administration, adds that Stanko’s, “an extremely bright person, who is teaching us to think differently and motivating us at the same time. Each month we are discovering new ways Orest can add value to our club, and it’s already making a difference.”

With the club’s added “credibility,” Smith says “top coaches are contacting us to coach at Pakmen, because they want to work with Orest.

“Like most organizations, you are only as good as the people in leadership positioins,” added Smith. “With Orest as the leader, we are seeing great coaches who share similiar values and we do not have to settle for anything less.”

Sharone Vernon-Evans, a member of the 17u team, credits Stanko for an improvement in his game.

“He has made a crazy impact on me,” said the towering 6-foot-7 left side. “He has, and gives, all the knowledge you need to take your volleyball to new heights.” Vernon-Evans added that Stanko has improved the team’s play, by harping on the less glamorous aspects of the game, including “serve receive and defense. “If your passing is weak, he’ll make you focus on it by having you pass all practice. “He wants everybody to be an all-around player, so he makes sure that everybody is good at all skills and aspects, including mental toughness.” Vernon-Evans is just the latest player to credit Stanko for raising his game.

Jeff Chung and Dustin Reid, who played for Stanko before moving on to the national team, also raved about the man.

“Orest is a colorful character, and always finds a way to get the very best from his athletes,” said Chung.

Reid, currently the coach of the Ryerson Rams women’s team, added upon Stanko’s hiring, “I believe his passion for our sport, combined with the ability to bring out the best in those he works with, make him a special coach.”

A member of Canada’s national team for more than 120 international matches, including two World Cups, Reid joins Stanko on the Centre of Excellence coaching staff, along with Olympic coach Lennard Krapp, and the OVA’s Development coach, Nadar Shavandi.