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Flin Flon-heavy regional volleyball squad sees results

A club volleyball team representing northern Manitoba talent, including many players from Hapnot Collegiate, has taken the court by storm at several southern tournaments.

A club volleyball team for northern Manitoba talent, including many players from Hapnot Collegiate, has taken the court by storm at several southern tournaments.

The Northern Stars Volleyball Club, now finishing its second year on the floor, is building on recent success and hoping to continue on into the future. While northern-based travel sports teams have usually been confined to high school sports or other games like hockey, the Northern Stars program has brought the region’s most talented volleyball players together away outside the high school season to take on Manitoba’s best.

The Northern Stars are northern Manitoba’s only travel volleyball team - the only other team recognized as a northern team by Volleyball Manitoba is in Neepawa, located about 130 kilometres north of the U.S. border, a two-hour drive from Winnipeg and about 700 kilometres south of Flin Flon.

Mallory Neill began the program and was the team’s coach while her daughter Addie was in high school volleyball - Addie recently made history as Hapnot’s first-ever volleyball player to receive a USports scholarship, joining up with the Univ. of Manitoba Bisons. The team’s coaches are now Hapnot junior varsity head coach Amy Olenick - who serves as an assistant with the Stars - and head coach Ray Shirran, who began coaching the team when his daughter Blake made the team, coaching volleyball for the first time.

This year’s Northern Stars team was made up almost entirely of Hapnot players - just two players from outside Flin Flon made the cut and only one, The Pas’ Lisa Melnyk, played for the Stars this season. Shirran said all northern players are welcome to try out for the club, even if there are challenges for players to get to tryouts.

Travel volleyball brings big crowds of players out for tryouts in larger centres. That doesn’t happen the same way in the north, with a smaller player base and huge distances between teams.

“We’re for the north, we’re trying to build volleyball in the north. It has taken off like I’ve never seen a sport take off,” he said.

“I’m talking to coaches down south and they’ve got 100 kids showing up for tryouts. We had 20, maybe 22 kids show up for ours.”

Despite a rookie head coach, a smaller talent pool to draw from and playing far fewer games than Winnipeg-based teams, the Northern Stars still performed when called on. While some provincial-level teams play 50 games a year against other teams nearby, the Stars have to drive to major centres to play, facing regional high school teams in the meantime. They played their first tournament in Brandon in late March.

Leading up to under-16 girls’ provincials March 22-23 in Winnipeg, the Northern Stars entered as the lowest seed in an 18-team field. The Stars fought back, forcing the under-16 Bandits Ayiya to extra points in their matchup and beating the Selkirk Royals in an extra-set victory to advance.

“In our first tournament, we lost to the Bandits - we lost a tight one, then we lost pretty bad. In provincials, we played them again and we laid into them pretty good. We improved a lot,” said Shirran.

From there, the Northern Stars beat the Impact U16 team in three sets to force a matchup with Vision U16 Blue, which the Stars won, going three for five at provincials and finishing 13th.

On top of that, the Stars headed to Regina in April to play at the Queen City Volleyball Club tournament, where once again the northerners beat the odds, coming fifth out of 12 teams.

“I think the girls were great - every single one of them, I think they were great,” said Shirran.

Volunteers and coaching are always hard to find for youth sports teams, including for the Northern Stars. Shirran never coached volleyball before this season, but took over the role when someone needed to - since then, he’s even undertaken more training to coach teams in older age groups.

“They wouldn’t have had a head coach if I didn’t step in and decide to help out and coach - so I got into coaching volleyball for the first time ever, in December. The last time I played volleyball, it was with the McIsaac Marauders in 1987,” he said.

“I have probably one of the best assistant coaches helping me out in Amy - she’s the girls’ JV coach at Hapnot and I don’t think I could ask for anybody more supportive and easier to listen to and learn from.”

The program will keep on going as long as there are players willing to travel and coaches willing to volunteer - the players are there, but coaches are in short supply. Shirran hopes another crop of parents can step up and get involved.

“Hopefully, we can get some more coaches in the north that want to keep the club going. There’s a lot of interest at the under-14 level, there’s a lot of interest at the under-15 level, but we need coaches to keep the program going,” said Shirran.

“I think that the north is strong in all sports, but it’s strong in volleyball, especially for the girls. Hopefully, we can continue to grow the program.”

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