By Brendan Shykora
In 10 years as a provincial volleyball coach, Frank St-Denis says he hasn’t seen a team work together better than this year’s Ontario Blacks, who finished on top of Division 1 of men’s competition at the Indoor Canada Cup in Richmond, B.C.
“I’ve worked with great groups, but this is probably the best group in terms of team chemistry. They’re just a great bunch of guys.”
St-Denis whittled down a pool of 130 players to a 36-man tryout. From that group, six were plucked by Volleyball Canada for the Youth National team in May. Though he lost a starting lineup’s worth of his top prospects, the team he assembled just weeks before the Canada Cup managed to come together as a cohesive unit.
The team breezed through pool play, going 4-0 without losing a set. This early-round dominance afforded St-Denis the luxury of spreading out playing time evenly among the players.
Squaring off against the favoured Albertan team in the finals at Richmond’s Olympic Oval, the Blacks battled through a four-set affair, winning the final two sets to seal victory.
“This tournament has been to my recollection an Ontario-Alberta tilt over the past few years, so it’s a common rivalry,” St-Denis remarked.
While finals matchups always have an added dose of dramatic intrigue, the team’s semi-final game against British Columbia was the pivotal moment in their tournament. The Blacks inched out a 15-13 victory in the fifth set in spite of the added opposition of a hefty home crowd. B.C. executed a stifling game plan that could have led to an upset if not for a few key blocks from Alex King, a 6-foot-8 middle from Ottawa who only has two years of club volleyball experience under his belt.
The keys to taking home the gold were error management and composure in long-rally situations, according to the coach: “I think that was where we were better than most other teams, we weren’t making as many unforced errors and in volleyball that’s pretty big.”
“And as rallies go longer you’re often more out of sync,” St-Denis said. “I thought we were clearly a stronger team in that department.”
St-Denis also mans the bench for Maverick Volleyball, a local club that was well represented on the Blacks. Ottawa’s Alex King, Derek Webster and Maxime Gratton were a part of the regular rotation, while Jack Laine-Hebert was on deck as an alternate.
At 16, Gratton was the lone under-aged player on a roster that was already facing teams a year older (the Cup was officially a U18 tournament). Joining a team of older players could have been a challenge, but Gratton says that wasn’t the case.
“I already knew a couple guys but a lot of them I had never met, and it was really nice how they still welcomed me perfectly, it was almost as if I knew them for the whole season.”
Gratton may be a tall 16-year-old at 6-foot, but he was at a height disadvantage to the players around him. What he lacks in stature he makes up for with his impressive vertical jump.
“I touch as high as the other guys, it just takes me more time to get up in the air. So that’s just a lot of timing that’s way more difficult to practice, but my jump helps a lot.”
In Gratton’s next season with the Mavericks he’ll have St-Denis as his coach. He said he’s looking forward to the reunion.
“You can see that he has so much experience and he tries to give it all to his players. He really tries to help you as much as he can, and it works.”
Silver showing for women’s Blacks
Three more Mavericks were a part of the Ontario Blacks Division I women’s team that took home silver in the July 19-22 Cup. Ellie Hatashita and Michaela Jones were starters on the roster, and Portia Cooper traveled to Richmond with the team as an alternate.
Formerly the National Team Challenge Cup, the newly named Canada Cup brought male and female athletes together for the first time at the national level.