Volleyball on the upswing

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The U16 boys volleyball National Team Challenge Cup had a decidedly local flavour.

The final of the tournament in Gatineau, Que., on the weekend featured two teams from Ontario, with Ontario Black defeating Ontario Red 3-2 in the final.

Ontario Black featured three players from the London Volleyball Club U16 team, Ewan Mason, Evan West and Liam MacArthur, plus Markus Hong, a U15 player from the Forest City Volleyball Club, and Jason Guy from Stratford.

Ontario Red had two players from LVC U16, Zack Admans and Jack Fuller, as well as Braeden Sears from the LVC U15 team.

On the same weekend one of two Ontario U16 girls teams won the National Team Challenge Cup in Richmond, B.C., and the Ontario U18 boys became the first Canadian team to win the U.S.A. High Performance Championship in Florida.

While all this is going on, Jordan McConkey of Stratford, a middle player, and St. Thomas’s Bryan Duquette, a libero, are on the Canadian team playing in the Pan Am Cup in Gatineau this week.

Patrick Johnson, coach of the Fanshawe Falcons men’s team and a coach at LVC, says the improvement in volleyball in the area, especially on the boys side, is not imaginary.

“There’s definitely been a radical shift, especially on the boys side, in the last 10 years or so to Ontario being a strong province,” Johnson said. “We’re starting to see it not just in provincial teams’ results but also with the number of athletes making the national team.”

Johnson credits a change in rules made at younger ages by the Ontario Volleyball Association.

“The OVA has done an incredible job in altering the rules of the game to really put an emphasis on development and process over results at the younger ages,” Johnson said. “Volleyball is a late developer sport. It doesn’t make sense to place such an emphasis on results at the 12- to 15-and-under level, where you still don’t know who the elite players are at that age yet. It’s typically the Bambis at that age who don’t know how to walk and chew gum who develop later. The rules put in place are frustrating a lot of people but it puts an emphasis on training the next-level athlete.”

One of the biggest changes in the rules for younger players is the removal of the libero position at that level. A libero is more a ball-handler, passer who often comes in to receive serve.

“They got rid of it until your 17-and-under year,” he said. “In the past the biggest players would get liberoed-off because they were big and awkward and as a result they wouldn’t develop the skills needed to play at the next level. But typically, the people who are going to play at the next level are the bigger players. It was really short-term thinking.

“Everybody has to be able to do everything. Now you are seeing the bigger players exit the club system and go to university and beyond and they are skilled now. That’s what you need at the next level for the senior team . . . you need to be big and skilled.”

Johnson also believes with more volleyball clubs and more exposure the number of players in the game has risen significantly.

There is also greater numbers of what Johnson calls “the professionalization of coaches.”

“Ontario has caught up a bit,” he said. “There are a lot more clubs that have fulltime staff and more resources to put into the kids.

“Having more clubs pop up it’s just raised the base and shear volume of athletes you can get involved; and because it’s a late developer sport, athletes aren’t hitting their peak until about 30. You want to get as big a base as you can and then you can filter it out until the 18U year. If you are starting with three times the number of players then your top level is going to be better.” 

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