Pakmen View the World as Their Playground
By DAVID WINER
The Pakmen Volleyball Club’s reputation has grown exponentially since a group of classmates from Mississauga’s David Leeder Middle School persuaded their coach to lengthen their season by joining the Ontario Volleyball Association.
After turning that first season into an U-14 OVA Provincial title, there was no turning back for coach Kelly Smith and his group of neophyte warriors as they spearheaded a history-making march to five successive titles, including three Provincials (U-14, U-15, U-17) and three Nationals (U15, U-16, U-18).
“When I started the first team (in 2002) I didn’t plan to offer (that opportunity to) more teams,” confided Smith. “I was just going (to coach) that group for as long as they wanted to keep playing in the OVA. But the next year’s group of Grade 8s asked me to offer them an OVA experience too. And suddenly we were a club with two teams, then three, four, five, etc.
“I knew very little about volleyball back then and I wasn’t sure we would ever win a match, let alone a tournament. We lost our first tournament and every tournament for the rest of the regular season, but we won Provincials and the guys never looked back, winning either Provincials or Nationals each year thereafter.”
Twenty years later, the Pakmen name is recognizable throughout Ontario, Canada, and indeed, the world with alumni representing club teams in Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Israel, Thailand, Serbia, Austria and Qatar…just to name a few.
“With regards to the club’s overall success – it’s hard to explain and I’m not sure I know the answer,” admitted Smith. “But for whatever reason, we were able to attract a racially diverse membership and, as the saying goes, together we’re better. Championship after championship, year after year and now the OVA and OUA (Ontario University Athletics) is proliferated with Pakmen alumni.”
Over 200 Pakmen graduates have made that jump into post-secondary play, including 172 in the past 18 seasons.
“Our record is built on developing the technical volleyball skills of each of our athletes so they can be successful in competitions and reach their potential,” Smith states on the Pakmen website. “No club in Canada has more athletes playing and excelling in the OUA, OCAA (Ontario Colleges Athletic Association), Youth National Team, Junior National Team, National Team, and professional teams throughout the world.
“We are committed to providing a high performance environment through the rep programs, which empowers young athletes to reach their athletic and personal potential by building selfconfidence, discipline, knowledge of the game, competitive training, and problem solving, in a safe and positive environment. Pakmen believes in developing a culture of mutual respect between parents, athletes and coaches through transparency, positive interactions, recognition of feelings and appreciation of uniqueness.”
And Pakmen coaches have delivered on that promise with multiple club stalwarts entering the post-secondary male and female ranks every year.
Despite multiple Covid restrictions, Pakmen graduated 10 of its players to the post secondary ranks after the 2021 season; 17 after the 2020 season; 15 after the 2019 campaign; 14 from the 2018 season; and a whopping 22 players from the 2017 season.
Jessy Satti, who was a member of that inaugural Pakmen squad in 2002, is now one of the club’s top coaches and takes immense joy in seeing the Pakmen brand of excellence thrive in post secondary play.
“I get a great sense of pride when I see our alumni excel at the next level,” smiled Satti. “It makes me feel, as a club, we did the best for them in regards to their volleyball needs. And, they used everything we were able to teach them to help them play at a high level. It also gives us confidence to continue to do what we do. Sometimes you question if you’re teaching the right things, so when we see our alumni use certain techniques that help them at the next level, its reassuring.”
The recipe Pakmen coaches have developed in making their graduates winners at the next level, is multi faceted.
“I think we have the right formula,” said Satti. “Our athletes train a lot, and we have a deep staff of professional coaches. Our coaches are constantly collaborating and sharing ideas, we help each other and we all become better coaches out of it. Our club has been in the last five National Championship finals, which is a result of our commitment to teaching kids to be successful after club.”
It’s one thing for coaches to have the needed expertise to propel their players to rich and successful careers. But the players must have the willingness to train extra hours and provide the desire to succeed.
When asked what gives Pakmen an advantage over other clubs in preparing players for the future, Satti replied, “Our coaching staff and resources. Our teams train three days a week and then we also have specialized training. We offer setter training that we’ve been doing for over 10 years, we also have specialized training for outsides and middles. We also own beach volleyball courts, so Pakmen athletes have the advantage of playing volleyball 12 months of the year in house with consistent coaching.”
Post secondary coaches have certainly noticed the constant flood of stars graduating annually from the Pakmen organization and prioritize recruiting them for the next scholastic year.
“Pakmen athletes arrive with the technical skills needed to get them onto the court and contributing to the team almost immediately,” said University of Guelph men’s head coach Calvin Wigston, who is in his 16th season. “Not only do they come with the technical skills needed, but they also come with a discipline to get better at those skills.”
A prime example is Guelph captain Arjun Selhi, who learned to fight for every square inch of the court early in his Pakmen career.
“My volleyball career started a little funny,” revealed Selhi. “I tried out for (the Pakmen) in both Grade 6 and 7 and got cut. In Grade 8, I thought I had nothing to lose and showed up again. There, I met Kelly who was a Grade 8 teacher at David Leeder and the one who started the whole legacy. As Kelly made the cuts I was surprised I was still on the floor. I can still remember the feeling I had when Kelly told me I’d made the team. It was the start of my career.
“(It was as one of Smith’s players) midway through the 14U season where I started learning the sport and growing, not only as an athlete, but as a person as well. Pakmen was the only club willing to take me in and make me who I am today.”
Selhi says Pakmen “creates a winning culture. The athletes I played with and looked up to, performed at such a high caliber that it forced me to push myself in order to keep up with the club’s standards.”
Those standards included National championships for Selhi and his teammates in 2015, 2016 and 2018; Provincial gold in 2018, and a slew of titles for his Mississauga Secondary School squads including OFSAA gold in 2016 and 2017 and silver in 2015.
“Pakmen prepared me both physically and mentally (for university),” said Selhi, who added Pakmen also gave him an opportunity to coach house league players.
“Just being able to see the game from (another perspective) helped my game excel as well. Coaching gave me a new lens to look through and I was able to apply some things I learned while coaching to my game. Furthermore, the club gave me tons of opportunities to practice through the season with four practices a week and in the summer practicing almost every day.
“Jessy Satti played a huge role in not only my volleyball career but my personal life as well,” continued Selhi. “Today, he is one of my closest friends, who I still turn to for advice. Playing with such an elite group of guys meant we were in the finals a ton giving us championship caliber experiences that I could take with me to the post-secondary level – most players don’t get to say that.”
Selhi’s multiple opportunities to coach, play and practice hundreds of hours with Pakmen readied him for his next level of never ending changes and challenges.
“I (joined Guelph) as a right side, however a couple months later, due to injuries, I had to turn back into a middle,” explained Selhi. “I hadn’t played the position since 16U, however the fundamentals that were taught to me at the start of my career transferred over to help me excel as a middle for two years. Fast forward to my fourth year and I am the team’s captain and now play as a left side. With another position change comes more challenges whether that be mental or physical, however, Pakmen gave me such a solid foundation, which continues to help me lead and perform at various positions.
“I’ve been fortunate to play against some of the best players in the world,” reflected Selhi. “During beach seasons I had the pleasure of practicing with legendary (Pakmen) athletes like the duo of Parvir Jhajj and Sharone Vernon-Evans. Playing with such high caliber players gave me a chance to learn, not only the sport of volleyball, but how to be a competitor.”
Selhi had his pick of schools to attend, but chose Guelph because of the coaching, the facility, the opportunities and academics.
“Cal Wigston knows what drives me to get better and continues to ignite that fire within me,” said Selhi. “He continues to make sure the focus is on the fundamentals and emphasizes that the guys in his corner are being taken care of. It’s been an extreme pleasure playing for Cal Wigston, Dave Gross, and the Guelph Men’s Volleyball program.”
And, as a Guelph Gryphon Selhi has been able to confide with teammates and competitors, who have given him feedback on his Pakmen days.
“I have spoken to many players I’ve played against in my club years,” revealed Selhi. “Many of whom are my close friends today. The respect for the club’s winning culture is extremely high. Guys I’ve played against in big games tell me how composed teams from our clubs are and how much harder it made it for them to play us. Some players have even said how much they despised playing against Pakmen. But the result was always the same – Pakmen won.”
Former Pakmen player Lauren Pastor has experienced the same feedback as a member of the Western University Mustangs.
“Several of my teammates at Western have mentioned they were intimidated by me before getting to know me because as a Pakmen opponent, I was very focused, intense, and competitive. Other keywords they use while describing the club as a whole include competitive, aggressive, skilled, talented, confident and intimidating.”
Like Selhi, Pastor experienced no shortage of winning during her four-year tenure with Pakmen, including Provincial gold in 2017 and 2018; Provincial bronze in 2019; three-time Junior National team member, which included trips to the United States, Honduras and Egypt for world and North American titles.
“I moved to Pakmen from my old club because I wanted to be on a team where the culture was more competitive and my teammates wanted to win,” reflected Pastor. “I was also looking for a more supportive social team environment.”
“Pakmen introduced me to high level competition and training in my high school years, which prepared me for university level volleyball,” added Pastor. “I came to university confident that I belonged and confident that I was a contender for a starting spot on the roster.
“Pakmen also helped me develop mental toughness and a winner’s mentality,” she continued. “The practice environment was very competitive, goals and expectations were clearly communicated, and I learned how to channel focus, intensity, and a desire to win into practice and games. You would expect nothing less since competition and excellence are what people know about the club. But arguably the biggest lesson I learned was about growth. I was frustrated after practice and spoke with Kadeem Clarke who was my head coach at the time, and I said to him, ‘I don’t like where I’m at. I should be better by now. I’m not getting better fast enough’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Lauren, life is going to be very hard if you don’t learn to enjoy the process of learning’. That was about five years ago and it is something that I think about almost every day in every aspect of life. In volleyball, but also in school, in my relationships and in life. Learning to enjoy the process of learning is the lesson that has best prepared me for the new chapters of my life.”
The 5-foot-11 setter, who is studying Health Sciences, is ecstatic to have nine-year head coach
Melissa Bartlett as her new mentor
“Melissa Bartlett drew me to the program because of her focus on team dynamics and care for players,” said Pastor.
And should Selhi and Pastor choose to continue playing when their university careers are completed, they will have plenty of role models to choose from.
Players like Xander Ketrzynski, Sharone Vernon-Evans, Chris Towe (beach), Daniel Dearing
(beach), Joey Jarvis, Terrel Bramwell, Brandon Koppers, Nathan Murdock, Niko Rukavina, Felipe Humana-Paredes (beach), Matthew Bowers, Melissa Langegger and Lauren Veltman have all turned professional making the world their home.
Dearing and Bramwell were actually teammates of Satti on that first Pakmen team Smith coached, and some of those players still have a hand with the club.
“I’m still close friends with a lot of my 18U National Championship teammates from 2008,” said Satti. “Kadeem Clarke and Andre Smith are still involved with Pakmen, coaching high level rep teams. Daniel Dearing and I keep in touch. He’s currently training and pushing to qualify for the next Olympics in beach volleyball. Derek Quinn played at Humber after he graduated and he was an assistant coach with us for years. Jordan Langley has his daughter and son in our house league programs. It shows how we’ve truly come full circle as a club.
“And Terrel is still playing overseas. Whenever he’s in town I see him all the time. He still has the drive and motivation to be a high-level volleyball player and is still a huge advocate of
Pakmen. A lot of our young athletes follow him on Instagram.”