Pakmen take centre stage at Nationals

  • May 30, 2024

By DAVID WINER

Volleyball has many hotspots in the country. Volleyball Canada in Ottawa, the men’s and women’s indoor training facilities in Gatineau, Q.C. and Richmond, B.C. and the beach centre in Downsview. But, in reality, the epicenter; the country’s heartbeat is in Mississauga… home of the Pakmen Volleyball Club.

“The last wave of Nationals has just concluded and I am proud to say that our club once again was the top overall club in Canada with three gold and two silver medals,” said overjoyed Pakmen founder and director Kelly Smith.

“This is the 10th straight year Pakmen is the top overall club in Canada! And we were also recognized as the top club in Canada by Volleyball Canada at beach nationals this past summer. The first time VC has ever recognized an overall club.”

Of the 10 age groups contested in Edmonton earlier this month, the club’s U17 and U18 boys’ teams struck gold as did the U16 girls’ team. Celebrating silver medal finishes were the boys’ U14 and U15 squads.

“I’m incredibly proud of the accomplishments the club has been able to achieve since our inception in 2002, particularly over the last decade,” said Smith. “Our Mission was, and still is, about inclusion. And when you include everyone, good things always happen. Having said that, I never imagined the club would be this successful.

“Every club is improving, getting better, training harder and smarter. This makes us better because we know we have to get better in order to be where we want to be.”

Smith gives much of the credit for the club’s exploits to head coach Jessy Satti, who also headed up the boys’ U18 squad.

“He is a perfect four-for-four at U18 Nationals, and five-for-five if you count his 2008 gold medal as a player and team captain.

“I’m not sure any coach has won U18 Nationals twice in a row, and no one has won three times in a row and four out of four.

“The U18 Nationals is very difficult to win as the rules vary per province,” continued Smith. “As an example, Quebec and western teams permit first-year university and college players born after Sept. 1 to compete, giving those teams a huge advantage.”

Simply put, “Jessy is the most successful youth coach in our sport, yet he is humble and knows he and his team have to earn their successes each and every season. He’s a master of creating the right team chemistry and knows how to get his players to peak at the right time of year.”

And, if those accomplishments aren’t enough of a compliment, Smith adds that Satti, as club head coach, is also responsible for appointing the coaches to each of the teams.

“Jessy is in charge of selecting the head coaches and he’s really good at it,” said Smith. “He knows people and always ensures we have the right individuals heading our teams. He provides a lot of the training and we also bring in lots of guest coaches that we respect throughout the season. We also encourage our coaches to attend the best seminars and workshops.”

It all adds up to continued, uninterrupted success making Pakmen a perennial powerhouse.

The U18 Pakmen went unscathed in preliminary action before having their hands full against the Halton Hurricanes in the quarter-finals, finally prevailing in a marathon, 23-25, 25-23, 20-18.

“We got through a very tough quarter-final that could have gone either way,” said Satti. “Once we got through that, it felt like the ball was rolling and we couldn’t lose. We had a lot of great performances from all the players. Everyone stepped up in the final match.

“We were totally prepared for the moment and our team’s depth played a key role. We had our best match of the season in the finals, everything clicked and we were firing on all cylinders.”

Pakmen dispatched the KVA Pack team from Kamloops, in the semi-finals 25-20, 25-18, before defeating Nooks from Edmonton 25-16, 25-17 for the gold. The Titans from Quebec placed fourth.

Satti, who’s won the U18 Nationals in 2018, 2019, 2023 and 2024 could have had more titles to his credit if the pandemic hadn’t interrupted the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Satti didn’t coach the age group in 2022.

One lesson Satti has learned over the years is to suppress transfering the pressure of winning title after title onto the players.

“I try not to feel pressure from that (winning) record,” said Satti. “It’s not about me, it’s about my athletes. The pressure that I feel is trying to make sure the boys play the way we’ve trained all season.

“I kept them focused, reminding them about the process and journey of getting to that point. Making sure I kept them composed and not to make the moment too big. Most guys have played 5-7 years of club volleyball to get to that final, so we reminded them to just be calm and composed and not to rush the game.”

Members of the championship team include Satti, assistants Dave McAllister and Danny La, and players Marc Lihet, Wil Basilio, Matthew Mowbray, Parker Ocampo, Chris Tautrims, Brecken Morrrison, Danilo Borcic, Luka Minic, Justin Low-Ring, Matthew McCarvell, Justin Holland, Tian Harcevic and Agam Minhas.

Equally as impressive to Satti’s U18 squad was Omar Jazar’s U17 Pakmen.

While Satti has years of experience to count on, Jazar guided his men to gold in only his second year as a head coach.

Just like their older clubmates, the U17 Pakmen finished the championships undefeated with a sparkling 9-0 record. However, the route they took was fraught with anxiety and tense moments Jazar may never encounter again in his coaching years.

Pakmen entered the playoffs after defeating Canada West (Alberta), Park Elite (Alberta), Winman Clutch (Manitoba), Thunderbolts Smash (Ontario), the Lions (Alberta) and Kitchener Waterloo Predators.

Against Lynx Noir of Quebec in the quarters, the perfect streak almost came to a screeching halt before Pakmen eventually eked out a 33-31, 23-25, 16-14 decision.

“The highlight of nationals was definitely our quarter-final match against Lynx,” said Jazar. It was a huge, mentally demanding, time for the players. It was definitely one of the most intense games I’ve ever coached.”

“Lynx have the reputation of fighting hard for every match. Their defence was incredible.

“I wouldn’t say I’m an emotional coach, but I definitely had to keep the boys fighting. It can get pretty frustrating when the opponent digs every hit. So the boys got down a little bit. But they definitely put up a fight.

“In the end our execution was more successful. And a few risky plays will always work better than safe easy plays.

“At the end of that match there was definitely a lot of physical and emotional fatigue, but also a lot of energy in the sense that they proved to themselves that they can fight and set a new standard of competitive fire. Their energy was consistent and why it was so great is because they played together like a team and relied on one another when they needed to.”

Club president Smith said Jazar was the right man for the job.

“Omar is a charismatic leader, who has an incredible presence,” said Smith. “He is able to keep his players calm when they need to be, yet aggressive and confident.

“For someone only coaching at the club for two years, his future is bright.”

The remainder of the playoffs weren’t as stressful, defeating Kitchener Waterloo Predators Invictus in the semi-finals, 25-20, 25-23, followed by a close straight-set win over Win Man Clutch for the gold, 25-22, 25-23.

“The boys either collapsed on the spot, or ran around with their teammates celebrating,” said Jazar after the final point. “I did what I do after every match, I packed my bag with a big smile, and headed to shake the opposition’s hands.”

Despite not winning gold at Provincials, Jazar emphasized that was never the team’s ultimate goal.

“It was definitely a long season, but our team’s goal was always Nationals,” said Jazar. “Provincials was merely the last stepping stone of learning before Nationals. The last checkpoint of lessons needed to be ready for Nationals.”

And Jazar’s appetite for learning never waned throughout the season, accepting advice and tips from coaches who have been through their share of trials and tribulations.

“I’m thankful for every coach and friend in the volleyball community who has helped me and my team out. I love learning and made sure I kept an open mind to coaches who have been in the game for a long time. Picking things up; whether it’s a new style of teaching, or a different perspective of the game, elevates my knowledge.”

Members of the championship team, coached by Jazar, Osemi Efosa, Gagan Majhel and Diem Huynh, are Rennick Koskela, Ben Karmazyn, Mitchel Watkins, Tristan Hassell, Aleksa Rakic, Daniel Lewis, Yahia Elsayed, Troy D’Cunha, Misha Panasiouk, Brendan Lyons, Dillon Layne, Tyson Parashyniak and Mekhi Fitzgerald.

While it was Jazar’s first taste of gold, Jeff Chung enjoyed the rare feat of winning back-to-back National golds with his U16 girls.

“That’s extremely difficult to do,” stressed Smith. “Especially on the girls’ side because there are hundreds of teams in his age group. But Jeff is an exceptional mentor and one of the most technical coaches in the sport.”

Chung was extremely fortunate to even have an opportunity to coach on the third day after a slow and near fatal start to the tournament.

Pakmen started with a win over Central Alberta Queens Extreme (25-20, 13-25, 19-17), followed by a loss to Ontario’s Titans Arson (22-25, 25-22, 11-15) and a win against Manitoba’s Providence Junior Pilots (25-20, 25-10).

On the second day, Pakmen lost back-to-back matches to Ontario’s Hurricanes Category 6 (23-25, 25-21, 11-15) and Ontario’s Storm Tornadoes (18-25, 19-25) before defeating B.C.’s Raincity Riptide (25-20, 25-16) in a must-win situation.

“On days one and two we definitely weren’t playing Pakmen volleyball,” admitted Chung. “Different individuals at different times were not performing at their best. Some were feeling ill and our chemistry was off. Execution was poor and our mindset was not sharp.

“At this point, the staff couldn’t quite figure out which was more stressful, dealing with how to regroup the girls, or seeing the parents depressed as if the world had ended.

“Ironically, we lost to all of the Ontario teams, who played free with no pressure knowing that we were coming in as Ontario’s No. 1 seed. Fortunately, we defeated the teams from out west to keep our heads above water.

“Day two was the most dramatic day as we were forced to win the last power pool match against Raincity to qualify for the playoffs.

“Day three our quarter-final against Alberta Canuck Stuff was highly competitive, winning 20-25, 25-14,15-5. Fortunately our game plan paid off, winning in three sets. Thereafter, we started rolling, playing with confidence, and never looking back!”

Pakmen rolled over Hurricanes Category 6 25-14, 25-17 in the semi-finals and the Huskies from Saskatchewan for the gold, 26-24, 25-12.

“We beat a very strong and well-coached Huskie team,” said Chung. “We knew entering the final that they would be extremely motivated as we upset them last year in the semi-final at the Nationals on their home soil in Regina. Last year, they were the higher-ranked team too.

“This past weekend, the Huskies were playing fantastic volleyball,” added Chung. “Even though they entered the tournament as the 22nd seed, they clawed their way to the gold medal match by defeating Durham Attack, Ontario’s silver medalists, in the quarters.

“The first set was back and forth. Extremely intense! We had a solid lead midway through but their service pressure forced us to use up all of the timeouts and substitutions and we eventually lost the lead. For a few points, it was looking very glum as we were trailing. But the girls showed grit and brought their competitive spirit to another level to tie the game 24-24. We persevered and won 26-24 with solid service pressure and transition plays.

“We think the result knocked the wind out of their sails, as we pulled away in the second set with relentless defense and efficient counterattacks. Again, our deep roster paid off on the final day as we felt that spreading out our playing time on day one and two would benefit us on the third day. The Huskies relied on their starters and a much shorter bench the entire weekend and perhaps fatigue played a factor in the final.”

Chung admits surviving the wild ride through the first two days of play made the entire experience ever more gratifying.

“The staff are extremely proud!,” said Chung. “I still don’t think we have fully digested the whole experience yet.

“To see the growth of our athletes as volleyball players and as people has been a great learning experience for us. We had a few new members this year and finding the ‘sisterhood’ on and off the court was going to be a challenge. Luckily, the 12 girls are great kids, raised by wonderful parents, and this made for an easier transition of molding the togetherness into the Pakmen way!

“Everyone wants to win. I would be lying if I said otherwise. This year we definitely learned to navigate through the fatigue of the daily grind by keeping a long term plan in mind. It makes for a much sweeter experience when the result is winning.

“This was a special season for our girls,” exuded Chung. “We were patient in our development, aiming to improve our team chemistry on the court while solidifying our team culture. Along the way, we focused on the present, trying not to think too far ahead. Winning the Grand Prix in the new year jump-started our enthusiasm to win, and it grew as we prepared for the Provincials. Nationals was the final challenge and we approached it with a humble outlook knowing the teams out west and the top eight teams from Ontario were going to be super competitive.
“Entering every season one of our mandates is to be the best version of ourselves. As a coach, that’s really all you can ask for!”

Members of the gold medal winning team co-coached by Chung and Tea Vukovic and assisted by Robert Zee, include Maya Boutanos, Kaleya Ilao, Yvona Dimitrova, Sonia Wojnicki, Alexandra Brenner, Louelle Miller, Logan Hamilton, Ava Chung, Evelen He, Sydney Rocca Jolie Liu and Kate Chipman.