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‘We believed in the bigger mission:’ How this local boys volleyball team rallied to provincial gold

When 15-year-old Tyceon Graham had trouble finding a competitive boys’ volleyball team in Port Huron last fall, someone suggested he check out Sarnia’s Twin Bridges Volleyball Club across the St. Clair River.

“Volleyball is really popular for girls in the states,” Graham tells The Journal on a Wednesday night at Northern Collegiate’s gymnasium, “but there’s not much over there for boys who want to play.”

He attended the U16 Boys Twin Bridges try-outs, earned a roster spot, and began making the cross-border trek every week for practices, games and tournaments.

“I really came full-circle,” says Graham, the youngest on the team, who went from scrambling to find a place to play — all the way to becoming a provincial champion — in one season.

The team won its division at the Ontario Volleyball Association’s Ontario championships held in Waterloo Ont., recently — a first for the club’s boys’ program — and a testament, their coaches say, to the growing popularity of the sport, and the determination of a group of young men who never gave up.

Coach Katrina Cadotte (centre) is all smiles during a team huddle. Tara Jeffrey photo

“These guys — they’d have a volleyball in their hands 24 hours a day if we’d let them,” coach Katrina Cadotte says with a laugh, amid the echoes of bumps, volleys and cheers and laughter inside the gym during the team’s final practice of the season. “It’s been amazing just to see their growth; seeing them develop into young men — their strength and passion.

“They’re all friends who love the game.”

She points to Juan Peralta, a student at Northern Collegiate student and newcomer to Canada, who says winning gold was a moment to remember.

“I felt really good because I never won anything like that before,” said the native of Colombia, who arrived in Sarnia and joined the team’s roster just eight months ago. “I was so happy.”

Twin Bridges has rostered boys’ teams since its launch in 2004, but numbers dropped off over the years, Cadotte explains. After the pandemic, she was asked to help revive the program, and spearhead a new team — a mix of boys ranging in age from nine to 14 — along with fellow coach Stacey Smith.

“So I took on the challenge of having a this whole wide age group… and we had to go 14U, the highest division the club had at the time.”

Andrew Epp’s son Quientin was on that young squad, interested in learning a new sport.

“Boys volleyball in Sarnia-Lambton has traditionally been an after-thought,” Epp explained.

“Student athletes would discover the sport in grades 11 or 12 and, by that time, they struggled to compete as other clubs and schools had much more experienced athletes.”

Epp credits the dedication of the team’s coaches for sticking it out over those years, and focusing on the development of healthy, well-rounded athletes versus competitive results.

Neither has a child on the team, he added. “They volunteer their time for the love of the game.”

Twin Bridges 16U boys volleyball team at their final practice of the season. Tara Jeffrey photo

In those first couple of years, the team did well enough in tournaments but never made it past the first game of the playoffs, he explained.

“Thanks to the great coaching and leadership, this didn’t upset the athletes or parents. We all believed in the bigger mission.

Word started getting out about the boys’ program, so Cadotte took on a house-league program to help introduce more kids to the sport, and accommodate the growing interest.

“I did the house league program, and liked it so much that I signed up,” said 15-year-old Quientin Epp. The Northern student actually quit basketball to focus his time with the budding Twin Bridges team — an atmosphere that he says isn’t quite like any other sport.

“The energy here, with this sport and the players — it’s hard to explain,” he says. “Everyone’s more happy; it’s a team. With volleyball, you’re only as strong as your weakest link, so you have to include everyone.”

This past season, 12 players tried out for the 16U team, and all 12 were selected. They represent high schools from across Sarnia-Lambton (and Port Huron) and include some of the original crew from that 14U team with Cadotte and Smith.

The team practiced two days a week, and joined a men’s league for extra experience.

“Then, as all good stories go, the team began to have success on the court,” Epp added. “They won their first medal in the fall, then won an entire invitational tournament in Markham a few weeks ago before heading to Waterloo for the provincial championships.”

The Twin Bridges 16U boys volleyball team won a historic gold at the Ontario Volleyball Association’s provincial championships recently. Pictured are, (back row, from left): Hailey Heidrich, Ada Longhin, Ethan McClellan, Findley Baery, Camden Courteaux, Mathieu Desrochers, Alex Pretty, Quientin Epp, Stacey Smith and Katrina Cadotte. Front row (from left): Duncan Graham, Chinmay Damin, Josh Blundy, Matthew Shih, Juan Peralta, Tyceon Graham.Submitted photo

Twin Bridges rallied to a (25-28; 24-26; 15-12) gold-medal win over Sky Volleyball of Windsor, making history for the club.

“I just remember when they got that last point, the boys just rushing onto the court,” Cadotte recalls. “And just pure excitement, because… they had that mindset, that they were coming home with gold, and they did it.”

Next season will introduce the club’s first 17U boys’ team in years.

“We’re hoping that the program continues to grow based on this win and word just getting out,” Cadotte explains. “And you bet I’ll be here for it.”

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