Pakmen lead Ontario to near Challenge Cup sweep

By DAVID WINER

Ontario dominated at the recent National Team Challenge Cup in Edmonton, winning three of four divisions, and capturing silver in the other.

Anchoring the Ontario onslaught, were a whopping 20 members of the Mississauga Pakmen, who comprised greater than 20 per cent of the 96 all-stars selected to represent the province.

And 25 per cent of the three gold medal winning teams called Pakmen their home club, including men’s U18 Black team members, Malcolm Prentice, Jordan Figueira and Sharone Vernon-Evans; men’s U16 Red team players Matthew Powell, Tomas Sorra and Navreet Suhan; and women’s U16 Red representatives Lucy Glen-Carter, Caitlin Le and Tristan Peterson.

Just missing out on gold, after a tough loss to B.C. in the championship, were women’s U18 team members Janelle Albert, Sarah Dobinson, Mady Timpany and Lauren Veltman.

Ethan Ellison and Liam Butchereit reached the podium with a bronze medal showing for Ontario Red in men’s U18 action, while fellow Pakmen representatives Cailin Wark and Julia Wiercigroch were fourth for their respective teams, and Andrew Cianci, Deman Dulat and Pranshu Patel placed a respectable fifth against the top youth players in the country.

But the players returned to Mississauga with more than just medals. New friendships, a better feel for the game, and added confidence were among the positives they took from the experience.

“Playing with provincial all-stars and some of the best athletes in Ontario was such an amazing experience,” said Le. “It was really interesting to see how we’d co-operate and perform the first time we practiced together. I admit, it took us quite some time to gel with one another, since most of us came from different teams, but with communication and trust, we improved individually as players and as a team.”

Le, and her fellow Ontario athletes, first attended four-day high performance training camps at Brock University in St. Catharines and Durham College in Oshawa where teams were divided into two teams per age group. That was followed by two-a-day practices for a week, before teams flew out west.

Le, Glen Carter and Peterson were named to the eventual gold medal winning Red team, while fellow Pakmen member Wiercigroch was named to the Black squad.

From there, teams flew to Edmonton for the Challenge Cup, followed by a week-long training camp in Whistler for the girls and Edmonton for the boys.

“Practicing twice every day for the past month gave me the chance to make so many new friends along this journey,” added Le. “I love every player on my team and couldn’t ask for a better group of girls. We went through the tough practices with blood, sweat, and tears together. I found winning the gold was just a bonus added onto the many memories and moments I’ve made with my team.”

Glen-Carter added how practicing and playing with bitter foes during the fall and winter club season took some getting used to.

“I’ve made a lot of close friends along the way,” said Glen-Carter. “But it’s always weird at first, because people who are your competition all year, turn out to be nice, friendly people, who you enjoy playing with.

“I don’t think I’d consider anyone on my Ontario team ‘mortal enemies’ during club season, but I’d say that we’d, most of the time, have a tough game against Halton Hurricanes. So it was nice getting to be on the same side of the net with those girls for once,” added the 16-year-old Glen-Carter, who will be entering Grade 11 at Toronto’s Rosedale Heights School of the Arts in September.

Both Le, who will attend Grade 11 at Mississauga’s St. Francis Xavier Secondary School, and the 6-foot Glen-Carter agreed the competition against the country’s top club players, was a super experience.

“They were always tough matches,” said Glen-Carter. “But I think, that the toughest match was against ourselves, trying to click as a team, coming back from a slow start and mainly figuring out how to get your teammates pumped.”

“We definitely had some ups and downs during NTCC’s, especially on the first day,” added Le. “We played an American team during pool play and underestimated them, causing us to lose. It was a hard loss and it really showed us how important every point, or set, or game is.

“Another tough match was against Ontario Black,” said Le of their semi-final. “It was probably one of the most intense games I’ve ever played in my career. We were friends with our other team, which made the stakes to win even higher. In the end it went to three sets and our team pulled through. Obviously that match could have easily gone either way.”

That set up the gold medal final against Alberta.

“I felt that we were so relieved to have won the tight game in the semis that we weren’t mentally prepared to play our hardest to win the gold,” reflected Le. “Eventually we picked up our game and were succeeded in the end.”

All the emotional ups and downs of the tournament, did have some of the girls pining for home, but there was still the training to be done in Whistler.

“We were so exhausted from just competing at NTCC’s that all we really wanted to do was go home,” said Le. “But now that I reflect upon it, I realized how it was literally a once in a lifetime experience. I had the chance to play with the top athletes in the country and met plenty of new friends along the way. We bonded fairly quickly and made some great memories. Hopefully we’ll continue to keep in touch!”

As for the volleyball aspect, Le continued, “Throughout the past month, I have learned so, so, so much. I worked with some of the most qualified and knowledgeable coaches and trainers in the country. Immediately after a practice, I would jot down all of what I learned so I could refer to it whenever. I will most certainly apply all of this training to the upcoming club season.”

As members of the men’s U16 Red team, teammates Suhan, Sorra and Powell not only captured gold, but did so under the guidance of new Pakmen coach Matt Harris.

And like Glen-Carter and Le, Suhan was appreciative of the opportunity.

“It was a great experience being able to play alongside some of the province’s best,” said Suhan, who will attend Grade 11 at Mississauga Secondary in the fall. “Competing next to such players brought out the competitiveness in each and every one on the court resulting in amazing game play all around.”

Players Suhan hopes to stay in touch with throughout his volleyball career.

“It was great because I definitely made many new friends from not only all over the province, but all over the country. It was nice to see that people with different backgrounds could connect so easily and expand on their friendships so fast.

“Training in Edmonton alongside other youth Canadian volleyball players was truly a blessing,” added Suhan. “It was very competitive as all athletes were honored to wear the Maple Leaf flag on their chest. I got plenty of quality touches in and it definitely had a positive impact on my game.

“I learned so much this summer from training with Team Ontario and Team Canada and for that I’m truly thankful. I was always blessed to have great coaches in my volleyball career as (Pakmen president and founder) Kelly Smith does an excellent job of having a prestigious line of coaching staff at Pakmen Volleyball Club. But it was great to receive even more knowledge from top coaches all across the nation, learning how they see the game in a different way and applying that to my understanding of the beautiful sport of volleyball.”

Unlike the other 19 Pakmen who competed at the Challenge Cup, Vernon-Ellis had the added honor of competing on behalf of a Canadian U18 all-star team at the USA High Performance Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

Joining six other Ontario players on the 12-man team, Canada finished with a 5-3 records against top international and American sides.

“It is a huge honor to represent your country,” said Vernon-Ellis. “It comes with great responsibility, but I accepted the responsibilities that came with it.”

Pakmen head coach Orest Stanko, who was helping out at the Toronto Pan American Games at the time, was thrilled so many members of his club had the honor and opportunity to practice and play alongside the country’s best young athletes.

“It’s an outstanding accomplishment for our Pakmen athletes to be selected to Team Ontario,” said Stanko. “I am extremely proud! It is a powerful testament to the quality of the Pakmen athletes and the coaches alike.”