There will be no distractions for the indoor volleyball squads wearing Manitoba colours at the upcoming Canada Summer Games.
Seeing the polar bears at Assiniboine Park Zoo or browsing through the shops at The Forks are not activities on the agenda.
The focus is solely on the task at hand for the young women and men selected to represent the province in the volleyball championships, scheduled for the second week of the Games, Aug. 7-12 at the Canada Games Sport for Life Centre and Investors Group Athletic Centre.
"Being at home is really the push for us," Averie Allard, a six-foot setter on the women’s team, said this week. "The other provinces will come here and want to experience all the things about Winnipeg. For us, we’re only concerned with volleyball. That’s the focus. We get to have all our friends and family here with us, and it’s going to be a wicked experience to play in front of all those people."
Allard, 18, is graduating from Sisler High School and has been recruited to play for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in Saskatoon in the fall. Cracking the Manitoba roster was an accomplishment two years in the making, she said.
"When I didn’t make the team for the Western Canada Summer Games (2015 in Wood Buffalo-Fort McMurray, Alta.), it was heartbreaking. That was a turning point for me," she said. "It hit me so hard that I didn’t make that team. I dropped ringette and decided that everything I had would go into volleyball and making this team."
The squad includes Taylor Boughton, Laura Hill, Julia Tays and Anna Maidment, all members of the 2016-17 provincial AAAA high school girls volleyball champion St. Mary’s Academy Flames. Boughton, 18, recruited to play for the University of Winnipeg Wesmen in the fall, said she’s excited to share the Games experience with all of her Manitoba teammates.
"It’s going to be really thrilling, especially with the group. We’re really intertwined from some of the same teams we’ve played on before," said Boughton, a 6-1 middle hitter. "We all know each other and we’re really bonding. It’s going to make the experience even more special."
While other sports are still finalizing their Games rosters, the personnel for the volleyball teams has been set for a few weeks now.
The women, coached by Josh Thordarson, are working out a few times a week and will ramp up preparations in mid-July, highlighted by a trip both the Manitoba men’s and women’s teams will take to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a tournament featuring other provincial teams and some of the top junior squads in the U.S.
Thordarson said the battle for a dozen jobs was intense, producing a talented and skilled lineup that should challenge for a medal.
"Everything was up for grabs. These kids totally earned their spots at the tryouts," said Thordarson, who was an assistant coach of the provincial men’s volleyball team at the Games four years ago in Sherbrooke, Que.
"So far in our practices, our defence has been outstanding. We’ve had some surprising people in the attacking role, too, but our six-on-six defence seems like it’s going to be very strong and keep a lot of balls in play and make teams earn points and, hopefully, we’ll have a chance to earn our own."
The Manitoba women have opening-round matches against Nova Scotia and the Yukon on Aug. 7. British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island are also in the six-team group.
The team also includes Ashleigh Laube, 18, whose twin brother, Jon, made the men’s team. Each is a left-side hitter with their respective squads. Jon said it’s a dream come true for both to quality for the Games.
"I was really hoping to play on the guys team and she wanted to make the girls team, and so it’s really nice that we both made it. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and competing at the same Games will be pretty interesting," he said. "Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of family and friends to watch.
"We’ve always tried to support each other since we were younger. When she watches me play volleyball, she can watch and critique the way I play, and I also do the same for her. We try (to be honest) because it helps us both get better."
The Manitoba men have opening-day matches against Northwest Territories and Ontario on Aug. 7. Alberta, New Brunswick and Newfoundland-Labrador are also in the group.
Men’s team head coach Ryan Ratushniak said in 15 years of coaching, the talent level at the Canada Summer Games team tryouts was the highest he’s ever seen and propelled athletes to be their very best, resulting in an exceptional final roster.
"I base that on a really high skill level and a lot of size and physicality, so I don’t think we’re going to be overmatched by any province," he said. "We’re going to be in a good spot to compete."
Ratushniak said all 12 of his players will get plenty of court time and share in the responsibility of driving for a spot in the medal round.
"I have a bit of a different philosophy for volleyball. To me, gone are the days of a having a starting lineup or a top six and that’s what you always roll with. I’ve been watching a lot of Team Canada in international men’s play and they have a lot of different looks, they use guys in a lot of different situations, they make a lot of substitutions within a match and change the lineup from match to match," he said. "You don’t want to be predictable as a team, so the more guys we can play in different spots, the better. We’re going to move guys around, give guys opportunities."