With a bucket of balls at his side, coach Kevin Murphy put members of Yukon’s table tennis team through their paces at Whitehorse Elementary School on Sunday.
He peppered them with serve after serve, again and again.
“Footwork is key, the game is very fast,” said Murphy during a break. “You want to be able to recover quickly from shots and be able to hit a backhand after a forehand on the other side of the table. You want to have speed.”
The Canada Winter Games table tennis competition is just a month away, and the eight-member squad is preparing.
The team includes under-18 players Ryan and Zara Bachli, Karlie Knight and William Kennedy, and under-15 players Claire Abbott and Anna Smith, Malkolm Boothroyd and Ben Barrett-Forrest.
Only Smith and Kennedy are new to the squad.
By Yukon standards, the team is experienced.
Six of the eight competed at both the Arctic Winter Games in Kenai, Alaska last March, and the Western Canadian Championships in Whitehorse in May.
“It bodes well that they had that kind of competition,” Murphy said of the Arctic Games experience, which included tough players from Yamal, Russia.
“It’s at the highest level — probably equal to that of the Canada Games, because of the players from Russia, they were top-notch.”
The Westerns proved to be good training as well, with the young players facing off against adults in the open team competition.
“We had the number two ranked male player in Canada up here, and they had to face him,” said Murphy. “And the number 10 women’s player — that was certainly an eye-opener for our junior girls.”
“It’s very subtle at that level,” added Murphy. “There are very few people up here that have difficult serves, myself being one of them. So they don’t get to see all these different serving styles.
“We try to prepare them in a way that teaches them what to look for — angle of impact on the ball, how much spin they put on it, listen to the sound of impact — it can tell you an awful lot.”
Despite serious disadvantages with regular, high-level competition, some members of team Yukon are already thinking of the podium in the Games.
Veteran Bachli, who spent a month in China last year at a training camp, is feeling pretty good about his game.
After a couple top three finishes at the Westerns, Bachli is confident.
“I’m hoping to medal,” he said.
Other players are more skeptical.
“We’re going to be outclassed, definitely,” said Boothroyd. “We’ll be playing against the best in Canada.”
The only unknown for the team, heading into the Games, is the strength of the eastern provinces. No player on the team has ever faced the juggernaut of Ontario or Quebec.
“They’ve got to be good,” said Barrett-Forrest.
“They’ve got so many people to choose from.”
While facing overwhelming odds, some players have set personal goals to meet during the competition.
“I’m hoping to win a couple of games, and get at least one point in every game,” said Barrett-Forrest.
“Good solid points against some good players,” added Boothroyd. “ Not missed serves or flubs.”
Yukon has a good chance of finishing ahead of both Nunavut and PEI in the team competition, said Boothroyd.
“The competition … we’re going to have to pick up our game in a very short time, to stay with them,” said Murphy.
“That’s always a bit of a struggle, to duplicate that up here — it’s just part of table tennis in the Yukon.”