It’s Monday night in Mississauga. Deep in the heart of the suburbs, a group of grade 12 girls clusters outside a nondescript middle school, laughing, chattering, on their phones. But these girls look taller than average, and stronger. They’re clad in sweatshirts, track pants, socks and sandals in spite of the cold. Volleyball wear. It’s practice time for the girls of Pakmen Gold.
It might seem like any other season as they wander into the gym, but it’s not. There are less tournaments, and the rosters have been whittled down to those who truly love the sport. The competition is tougher. There’s the pressure of keeping grades up, choosing universities, and trying to establish a winning legacy for the team. Welcome to 18U, the final year of club volleyball.
Pakmen veteran Caitlin Le has played for the club since 13U, when she was memorable for her unique eyewear and outsize hitting which was the envy of the league. She already knows it will be a wrench when the season ends. “I will definitely feel like a part of me has been left in the club,” says Le. She plays libero now, and her black-rimmed sports goggles have long since been replaced by contact lenses. “Pakmen is where my roots are,” she adds, “I have made many fond memories over the past years and will cherish them forever.”
Hard-working International Baccalaureate student Julia Wiercigroch echoes Le’s sentiments, and observes, “I’ll miss that sense of family. Pakmen gave me the volleyball foundation to build on, and space to grow.” Wiercigroch has been by Le’s side since those early days, but that too will end. Whereas Le will head west in September to study and play at Manitoba’s Brandon University, Wiercigroch will travel east, to Queen’s University in Kingston.
For all the girls, the end of the journey is also a beginning. Post-secondary decisions, despite being squeezed in between practices, workouts, and homework, have been a chance to reflect on the volleyball experience. “In addition to a great kinesiology program, I was looking for a university with a close-knit community, great coaching, and supportive teammates,” explains third-year Pakmen hitter Lucy Glen-Carter, who will attend Nova Scotia’s Acadia University in the fall, “They’re all things I have at my club.”
The importance of belonging is not lost on any of the players. Middle Jenna Woock joined Pakmen this year, but first played with Le, Wiercigroch, Glen-Carter, and Janelle Albert in 15U, when they won the Winter Games title with Team Ontario Region 5. For Woock, the 18U year has never been about chasing medals. “It’s about training and playing with the right girls, working with the right coaches, and competing at the highest level,” says Woock, who became the first Ontario player to commit this season, signing with the University of Toronto last September.
Fearsome hitter Janelle Albert has chosen to stay close to home as well, joining Dustin Reid’s Ryerson Rams, where she will reunite with three former teammates from last year’s Pakmen 18U roster. She also highlights the importance of finding a team that’s the right fit, and adds that volleyball is about more than just ball-handling skills. “Teamwork, trust, and the ability to correct your own errors are also important skills to learn,” notes the perennial All-Star.
As setter Alicia Lam considers university offers, she too acknowledges the sport’s impact. “Club volleyball has been such a positive influence on my life,” says Lam, who was part of the historic Pakmen team which won the 16U and 17U Ontario Championship double in 2015. “My coaches are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the sport and they focus on sharing that knowledge to ensure everyone’s success,” she declares. “I have also made many great friends over the years, and I hope to stay in touch with them in the future.”
Those friends include the other members of Pakmen Gold. Beth Rohde has, like Le and Glen-Carter, opted for a more intimate university experience. She will study biomedical sciences and play at Trent University in Peterborough. Middle Megan Beedie plans to head south of the border to Arizona State, and Alex Bartmann will set at Humber Polytechnic next season. Hitters Vanessa Leslie and Nicole Thompson continue to weigh their options, as does libero Megan Smith.
Given the formidable reputation of the Pakmen club, it’s no surprise that the girls are in demand. Nine of the players are former provincial or national champions. Most of them are on the honour roll at their high schools. The team recently defeated rival Halton Hurricanes in the 18U Grand Prix final, and are the number one seed heading into the Ontario Championships. They all know how they’d like to finish the year.
So while life after high school beckons, the team isn’t wishing the season away just yet. Like all grade 12 students, they’d like to be done with the English essays, the science labs, and the math tests. If prom was tomorrow, they’d be there. But it comes to volleyball, it’s a different story.
And that’s why, on a frozen Monday night in Mississauga, the Pakmen Gold girls will soon be flat out on the floor, diving, digging, rolling. They know that it’s a privilege to be recruited by a varsity team, or to contend for the provincial and national titles. And they know there are other players, at other clubs, in other gyms, who are training just as hard as they are. For now, there’s work to be done.