Edmonton, Alberta: The sun is setting over the Sunday night skyline, and Pakmen’s 18U girls are exuberantly munching pizza in the meeting room of a suburban Holiday Inn. Black baseball caps are jauntily perched on their heads. On the side of each hat, there’s a red maple leaf embroidered with a white volleyball. Above the peak it simply says, 2017 Champions.
It’s a historic first for the club. In the final act of the indoor season, and on its biggest stage, a Pakmen girls’ team has just won the 18U Volleyball Canada National Championships.
For many in the room, this three-day journey has been three years in the making. Five players took home Nationals bronze medals in 16U and 17U with Pakmen. Another two have won silver. Coaches Mike Albert and Pat Daniels led last year’s 18Us to the Nationals’ final for two consecutive seasons, only to endure heart-breaking losses. But this year’s talented Pakmen roster would give them the opportunity to take one more run at that coveted national title.
On Friday, the tournament begins under brilliant blue skies. Pakmen have a tough day ahead, as the Volleyball Canada seeding process has placed three of the country’s top teams in the same group of four. Only the top two will advance to the Tier 1 power pools, and it’s quickly dubbed “the group of death” by observers. Pakmen’s opening match against Alberta’s Junior Dinos is a three-set thriller worthy of final day status. The Pakmen girls eventually take the game 27-25, 21-25,15-9. It sets the tone for the day. They make short work of Saskatchewan’s Stealth, and finish by defeating the Ducks, the British Columbia provincial champions.
The players wake up in the misty pre-dawn on Saturday. They’re at the Saville Centre by 6:45am, where the courts are a deafening cacophony of teams warming up. It’s another hard day, with no room for error. Once again, only the top two in each pool will qualify for the Tier 1 playoffs. But the Pakmen girls are now firing on all cylinders, and their serving, passing, blocking, and hitting are outstanding. They win all three games of the day without dropping a set, defeating the South County Bandits and BCO Elite, then grounding B.C.’s Airbourne.
The weather on day three turns cool and cloudy, but the mood is sunny in the Pakmen camp. The team is operating like a well-oiled machine. Mike Albert has deftly managed his players, giving every member of the team on-court time, resting his starters when Pakmen take a lead. It’s a deep squad. Defensive specialist Megan Smith, middle Beth Rohde, hitters Vanessa Leslie and Nicole Thompson — they are all contributing. Even injured setter Alex Bartmann has made the trip, her foot in a cast, to cheer on her teammates.
With three games to go in the knock-out stage, the girls are confident, but cautious. This is no time to be complacent. The Junior Bisons are the first up. They hang on gamely, but the Manitobans gradually fade under the Pakmen onslaught. They succumb 25-14, 25-12. Next is the semi-final, where the Cobras await. The Cobras are big, strong, powerful, and the Bisons girls cram into the packed stands to support their provincial compatriots. But Pakmen put paid to the Cobras’ hopes. They defeat them 25-15, 25-13. The Pakmen girls are rolling, and the hallways are alive with talk of the team.
Over on the next court, Ontario’s Halton Hurricanes have breezed through their quarters, eliminating the Ottawa Mavericks in two sets. In their semi, Halton face the Tigers for the second time in the tournament. It’s a repeat of the first day’s game, and once again, they narrowly beat the Maritime champions in three sets. The 18U championship final will be an all-Ontario marquee match-up: Pakmen versus the Halton Hurricanes.
The court-side spectators are buzzing. This season, Pakmen have bested the Hurricanes all four times they’ve met, winning three one-day tournaments and the Ontario Grand Prix. The Hurricanes have taken advantage of Pakmen’s only two missteps, and after Pakmen were eliminated, took victory in one regular-season tournament and at the Ontario Championships. Now, at the biggest event of the season, can Halton finally beat the Pakmen girls? Or will Pakmen prevail for a remarkable fifth time and take their first National Championship?
As the final begins, the teams match each other point for point. But the Pakmen girls have the edge. Setter Alicia Lam is moving the ball left, right, middle, confounding the Halton blockers. Lucy Glen-Carter is crushing balls from right, hitting line, cross-court, deep corner, seemingly unstoppable. Power hitter Janelle Albert is suddenly cutting shots and chipping winners over hands. Megan Beedie and Jenna Woock are a wall in the middle. Julia Wiercigroch is an ever-present threat from left. Libero Caitlin Le is diving and rolling across the back court, saving every ball she can.
Pakmen are peaking when it matters most. They’re out-thinking their opponents. They’re playing as one. And that’s the thing about volleyball — it’s the only team sport where individual brilliance can’t consistently bring a team success. You have to work together, in synchronicity. The coach must adjust, motivate, encourage, praise, and there’s Mike Albert on the sidelines, doing just that. Pat Daniels and Ken Burns are doing the same behind him. The players are throwing themselves around the court. For each point they win, there’s an explosive celebration. At time-outs, they recover, exhausted.
For each Halton score, Pakmen respond. The Hurricanes cling on stubbornly. Yet slowly, inexorably, Pakmen move ahead. They seize the lead and maintain it through both sets, taking the first 25-19, and the second 25-21. It’s all over. They’ve done it. For the first time, the Pakmen 18U girls are the Canada Volleyball National Champions.
Back at the hotel, after the medals, the awards, the photos, and the celebrations, the sun also sets on their club volleyball careers. Like all youth volleyball players, they’ll remember their teammates. They’ll remember that sense of shared community at tournaments. They’ll remember the training, and all the hours they put in. They’ll remember what their coaches taught them.
And for these Pakmen 18U girls, whose talents, hard work, and physical gifts have placed them among Canada’s volleyball elite, they’ll remember those hats.