Yukon’s Sub Zero 18U men’s team arrived back at the Whitehorse airport wearing gold medals to the sound of well-deserved applause on Wednesday.
The team won their tier at the 2012 Canadian Open Volleyball Championships on Tuesday in Toronto. By winning Tier 3, Sub Zero finished 17th overall out of 64 of the country’s best 18U teams.
It is the highest a Yukon team has ever finished at the nationals in the 18U men division.
The gold-medal win has been a long time in the making.
“It was a good way to finish off the season and the last five years that we’ve been playing on this team,” said captain Lowell Tait. “We have lots of experience from the Arctic Winter Games and high school seasons since Grade 8. We’ve had additions and lost some players, but this core group has been together for a while – around five years.
“I’m just happy that we had a good finish to everything.”
“It was really great because we’ve worked so hard – a lot of practice,” said right-side Albert Spycher. “Mike (Hunter) and I have been playing together since Grade 8 and 9. We’ve been practicing a lot and trying out for everything we could, like the Arctic (Winter Games) in 2010, Western Canada Games in 2011, and Arctic (Games) this year.
“All that hard work, good players, helped us through this tournament.”
Sub Zero snatched the gold with a 28-26, 25-18 win over Prince George’s Kodiaks, which defeated Alberta’s No. 3 team to reach the final.
The Yukon boys had their own wins over top Alberta teams.
In the Tier 3 semifinal, Sub Zero beat Edmonton’s Gold Bears, the province’s No. 2 ranked team and the club team for the University of Alberta. After dropping the first set, Sub Zero came back to win 24-26, 25-23, 15-9.
They were giant killers in the quarterfinal as well. In another tough three-setter, Sub Zero downed Cochrane’s Jaguars Black, Alberta’s No. 4 ranked team, 25-22, 22-25, 15-9.
“These guys have been playing together so long, it didn’t matter who we were playing or what the circumstance was, in all of those matches you never hear them get on each other. They just work and have fun and compete,” said Sub Zero head coach Russ Tait. “I had tons of coaches come up and comment on their skill-level. They were impressed to see a group of guys from the Yukon playing at that level.
“More important then winning that gold medal is to compete with the best players in the country.”
Though no one can go to a national championship expecting to win a gold medal, the achievement wasn’t out from nowhere.
Sub Zero’s six starting players all competed on Yukon’s junior male volleyball team at the Arctic Winter Games this past March in Whitehorse. That team won the territory its first gold in volleyball in 26 years.
The six starters were also on board Yukon’s team at the Western Canada Summer Games last August in Kamloops, B.C., taking a couple sets off provincial teams, including the first set off B.C. ever by a Yukon squad at a major competition.
All eight of the Sub Zero players were also on the Vanier Catholic Secondary’s senior boys team this past fall. The Vanier Crusaders team, also coached by Russ, went undefeated at the Dawson Invitational Volleyball Tournament, in the regular season, and at the Yukon Volleyball Championships to become the territorial champs.
“We weren’t expecting to win, we just played our best and got the medal,” said Spycher.
“Most of us go to the same school, we all hang out together, we’re really close.”
Their prowess on the court hasn’t gone unnoticed by post-secondary coaches. Four players from the starting line have signed with college and university teams.
Next school year Spycher will be playing for Keyano College in Fort McMurray, Alta., Michael Hunter will be playing at Grande Prairie College, and Mason Gray and Lowell are heading to Grant McEwan University in Edmonton.
Even this past weekend at the nationals, Charlie Kedziora was made an offer by NAIT Institute and is considering it.
“My goal, since (they were in) Grade 7, was to have them to have them go play somewhere after they graduate high school,” said Russ.
“Out of my six starters, five of them are going to go play somewhere in college. The one that isn’t, it’s not because he couldn’t, it’s just because he’s in a high academic program. To me that’s a big accomplishment in itself.”
Now that the team’s players are all heading their own ways, finishing this week’s championships carries some mixed emotions.
“It’s a little bitter-sweet, but Michael, Mason (Gray) and I will see each other a lot during next year in our college volleyball season,” said Spycher. “We’ll be playing each other every second weekend or every weekend.”
Sub Zero, which went 6-3 in Toronto, found themselves competing in Tier 3 after taking a pair of losses on the opening day. They lost 29-27, 25-22 to Aurora, Ontario’s Storm Avalanche and then 24-26, 25-20, 15-7 to Calgary’s Canuck Stuff, who went on to win the bronze in Tier 1.
In other words, Sub Zero pushed the team that finished third overall in the country to three sets.
As usual, Spycher was a key part to the team’s offence, leading the team in aces and kills, with 10 and 87 respectively. Hunter, was second in aces with six, and had 32 kills. Gray racked up 42 kills and led the team in blocks with 16.5. Jon Koltun was second on the team in blocks with 10 and also had 21 kills. Justin Dragoman had 24 kills and 7.5 blocks. Lowell, the team’s setter, amassed a total of 211 assists over the nine matches.
The team may be splitting up this coming school season, but they have one more goal in the back of their minds. They plan to reunite next year for the 2013 Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke, Quebec.
“Next summer is the Canada Games and we’re going to have everybody playing somewhere and we’ll be able to come back together for one last tournament,” said Lowell. “So we still have one more in the books … that’s what we’re all looking forward to.”
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