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Premier League Athletes Kick Off Their Professional Seasons

It's back to school already, and while many of us our preparing for Club Tryouts and getting back into the work routine, others have made the trek overseas to train for the beginning of the Professional Season in Europe!

We were so thrilled to have an amazing group of talented athletes compete in the inaugural season of the Premier League, and join us in supporting the growth of post-secondary volleyball in Canada. It was amazing to see the impact this season had for our Canadian Professionals, who joined us between seasons in Europe, and for the next generations of outstanding talent. Not only were many young athletes inspired by competing amongst some of our top Canadians, the League also provided a perfect training platform and mentoring opportunity for those already competing in Europe.

Erik Mattson wowed the crowd week after week with his amazing defensive abilities. Click to view this crazy rally from the Premier League on instagram.

Erik Mattson wowed the crowd week after week with his amazing defensive abilities. Click to view this crazy rally from the Premier League on instagram.

"The Premier League was great to train and compete during the off season at a relatively low volume. Being able to get reps twice a week allowed me to stay in game form and not let too much rust set in before heading back overseas. I'm excited to see how the league grows in the following years and contributes to the growth of volleyball in not only Toronto but the rest of the country as well." - Erik Mattson

Along with the 8 Premier League athletes heading back overseas for another season, we are excited to follow 6 new athletes who are preparing for their first seasons competing in Europe. We can only hope that the Premier League continues to inspire athletes to follow their dreams and continue competing in this sport that we love!

Alsi Ersozoglu

Alsi Ersozoglu

"Meeting and playing with a whole new group of athletes, who had been playing overseas in the previous years, inspired me to look for a contract. It has always been my dream but never really my plan, and participating in this league both helped me find the joy in the game again, after a long (and disappointing) varsity season, and connected me to people who could guide me on how to find a team overseas." - Asli Ersozoglu

We can't wait to follow the journey of these 14 athletes this season. Check out their bio below, and follow us on facebook to stay up-to-date on our Canadians! 

Uchenna Ofaha (middle) plays his first season overseas, and Jori Mantha (hitting) is playing his second.

Uchenna Ofaha (middle) plays his first season overseas, and Jori Mantha (hitting) is playing his second.


Returning Overseas

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Name: Steve Hunt
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: Saint Nazaire, France
Experience: 6th Professional Season, University of Hawaii
Premier League Highlights: Male MVP, top 3 on the leaderboard in Points, Serve, Dig and Receive
Follow: @stuntinaroundtheworld

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Name: Erik Mattson
Position: Libero
2017/2018 Club: Abiant Lycurgus, Netherlands
Premier League Highlights: Best Male Libero
Experience: 5th Professional Season, University of Alberta
Follow: @erik_mattson5

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Name: Taylor Brisebois
Position: Middle
2017/2018 Club: Volleyball Club Offenburg, Germany
Experience: Second Professional Season, McMaster University
Follow: @taybrisebois

Name: Jori Mantha
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: OK Hoče, Slovenia
Experience: 2nd Professional Season, McMaster University
Follow: @jorimantha

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Name: Ray Szeto
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: SVG Lüneburg Germany
Experience: 2nd Professional Season, York University
Follow@ray871

Name: Julie Mota
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: Degerfors Orion, Sweden
Experience: 9th Professional Season, Georgian College & Humber College
Follow: @juliemota12

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Name: Taylor Hunt
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: Pafiakos, Cyprus
Experience: 5th Professional Season, University of Alberta
Follow: @tayhunt5

Name: Andre Brown
Position: Middle
2017/2018 Club: Rovaniemi, Finland
Experience: 3rd Professional Season, Humber College
Follow: @andre_brown_18


First Professional Seasons

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Name: Alex Duncan-Thibealt
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: Sora, Italy
Experience: First Professional Season, York University
Follow: @alexduncanvball

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Name: Aleksa Miladinovic
Position: Setter
2017/2018 Club: Sodertelge, Sweden
Experience: First Professional Season, Ryerson University & University of Toronto
Premier League Highlights: Best Male Setter
Follow: @aleksa_miladinovic9
 

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Name: Patrick Strzalkowski
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: VC Gotha, Germany
Experience: 1st Professional Season, University of Guelph
Follow: @patty_straz

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Name: Asli Ersozoglu
Position: Libero
2017/2018 Club: Brondby, denmark
Experience: 1st Professional Season, University of Toronto
Follow: @aslersoz

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Name: Stefan Ristic
Position: Outside Hitter
2017/2018 Club: Chemie Volley Mittledeutschland, Germany
Experience: 1st Professional Season, Ryerson University
Follow: @stefrista

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Name: Uchenna Ofoha
Position: Middle
2017/2018 Club: Kokkolan Tiikerit, Finland
Experience: 1st Professional Season, Ryerson University
Follow: @_uch


Erik Mattson: The Highs and Lows of Professional Volleyball

One of the biggest misconceptions about playing Professional Volleyball is that athletes are on some kind of extended vacation following their post-secondary careers. Canadians are not exposed to volleyball as a professional sport, so it is hard to understand the life of our athletes abroad. Playing overseas is an amazing opportunity to make money competing and meet new people all over the world, but it is also stressful, uncertain and at times overwhelming. Erik Mattson has experienced this roller coaster ride of highs and lows, certainly in this last season competing in Slovakia.

Erik Mattson is a USport National Champion and USport Libero of the Year, as well as one of the few Canadian liberos currently competing overseas, a position which is proven to be difficult to earn as a professional player. After competing for three seasons in the German Bundesliga, he accepted a contract in Slovakia, where he is currently competing in his fourth season abroad. This season has been one of the toughest both mentally and physically for Erik, as he has encountered a whole set of new challenges as a professional athlete.

Club: Toronto Volleyball Club
University: University of Alberta 2008-2013
Professional: Evivo Düren 2013-2014, SVG Lüneburg 2014-2015, 2015-2016, VK Prievidza 2016-2017


After spending close to 90 days in Slovakia competing, Erik was informed that he didn't have the proper visa paperwork to stay in the EU. "I had to leave the EU. I spent 3 weeks in Croatia and when I finally came back to Slovakia, I was told that I needed to leave again." Erik was flown back to Toronto for over a month while he waited for a solution to his visa issues. Terminating the contract and staying in Toronto would mean losing his job and not competing the remainder of the season. "I was mentally and emotionally drained. I came to Slovakia to play volleyball and I wasn't able to because of paper work." 

Finally at the beginning of January, Erik was able to return to Slovakia and compete with his team again. He couldn't have been happier to get back on the court, but unfortunately that wasn't the only challenge he faced over the past season. Recently, Erik had to miss a full week of training due to back issues which went from manageable to worse. Injuries are an added stress as a professional athlete, not only is it frustrating as an athlete because you want to be on the court, but now you have the added pressure from your club.

Despite these setbacks, Erik and his team have finished the season in a great position for playoffs. In the last week of regular season, they handed VK Bystrina SPU Nitra, the first place team in the league, their second loss of the season in a 3-2 battle. Finishing third overall in the Slovakia league, VK Prievidza is looking forward to making a strong playoff push. Saturday, the team will look to sweep their quarter-finals series and move onto the semis where they will face Presov, the second place team. The match up in the semis will be an exciting one, with Prievidza recently sweeping Presov 3-0 in league play. You can check out the Quarter-Final action, Saturday March 18th, on www.tvcom.cz

Erik hopes to continue playing for the next 2-3 years before starting the next chapter of his life. "My favourite part of playing volleyball in Europe is being able to do what I love most every single day. Volleyball has allowed me to meet so many amazing people and experience so many amazing things."

Featured Challenger Series Competitor: Aleksa Miladinovic

Aleksa Miladinovic has always dreamed of playing professional volleyball overseas, and after graduation this year, he hopes that dream will become a reality.

A two time Academic All-Canadian, and twice named to the Dean's List, Aleksa exceled in both athletics and academics. After a successful three years at Ryerson, he received early acceptance into the Doctor of Pharmacy program, and made the transfer to the University of Toronto. Completing his final two years of eligibility for the Blues, Aleksa was ranked second in the OUA in total assists and named an OUA Second Team All-Star for the 2015-2016 season. Putting his athletic dreams on hold until graduation in May 2017, Aleksa has continued to train in hopes of landing his first professional contract for the 2017-2018 season.
 

"Ever since I started playing volleyball in 14U, I have been watching clips and games of professional volleyball matches. It's something I've been working towards for a long time."


An ambitious young setter, Aleksa was inspired by Nikola Grbic, an Olympic Champion and one of the best playmakers in the world. He's followed Grbic's career from the moment he started playing volleyball and would love to follow in the footsteps of his volleyball idol. His ultimate dream would be to play in Italy because of it's rich volleyball culture. But Aleksa knows his first major challenge is going to be getting his foot in the door in Europe.

 "[There are] not a lot of opportunities to play volleyball [post-secondary in Canada] which is one of the reasons why I like playing the ONE Volleyball tournaments so much. I want to stay in this sport in one way or another, for as long as I can."

A silver medalist at the Challenger Series No 1, we are excited to have Aleksa on the court again February 18th for the Challenger Series No 2 presented by Phoenix Volleyball Club for a second chance at the title and $1000 cash prize!

Stephen Maar sets high expectations in Italy's Super League

Stephen Maar is doing something not many Canadians get to do in their entire pro career never mind fresh out of the CIS; jump right into what is arguably the top volleyball league in the world. Last fall, he made a bold first impression on his coaches, team and other top athletes in the league, but he acknowledges he has a lot of growing to do to help his team win. The expectations he sets for himself are always high, but grounded on principle derived from his rewarding experience at McMaster University. We are so excited to follow Maar's career, and it has only just begun! Here he shares the behind the scenes on playing against superstars like Ivan Zaytsev and dealing with the transition of varsity volleyball to a pro career. 

Club: Crush Volleyball
University: McMaster University
Professional: Pallavolo Padova


So getting right into it, you left McMaster in your fourth year? Was that always your plan or was that a hard decision?

My time at McMaster was always planned to finish after 5 years, I say this not simply as just my plan but also a developmental plan that was created for me and around me by the coaching staff. Dave Preston orchestrated a developmental plan that gave me a chance to develop, physcially, technically, tactically, and mentally through the years, in order to be successful at the national and then professional level. I will be forever grateful for the work he and my assistant coaches, Nathan Janzan, Dan Russel, and Mohannad Ibrahim did to help get me where I am now. Each of them in conjunction with Dave created an environment to succeed. In their own way each one also gave me advice to pursue my dreams and leave after my 4th year when the chance had presented itself.

It was a hard decision to leave a team that I felt like I had more to give too after our national final loss. I was also very fortunate that my family supported me through university financially, so the decision to get reduced version of my degree was a group one. Having a degree, family support, and coaching / friend support definitely gave me a very positive base to begin my pro career early.

What has the transition been like having to convert volleyball from a varsity experience to a career - how have you been managing those expectations?

The changeover has been an experience to say the least, to go from playing in a student athlete atmosphere and with your community of fellow athletes to crowds of thousands, sponsors, and management behind your team is quite a change. My expectations of being a pro definitely have been exceeded, as your entire life begins to blend within your career, the highs and lows felt on the court are shared with your life and vice versa.

Whereas in university you have school, social functions, among a variety of other “distractions”, pro affords less easy distractions when things aren't going your way. As I continue to develop there is a different kind of joy that I didn't have in CIS volleyball, to feel as you are moving up in your profession is a feeling I love.


"Competition at such a high level does reveal areas in your game that are lacking very fast, and it gets quite apparent when some of the best players in the world are trying to exploit your weaknesses." - Stephen Maar

For those who aren't familiar with the types of leagues in Europe and the level, give us an idea of what is was like getting signed to a team competing in this calibre league.

I did a bunch of goal setting when I was a younger athlete, one of my all time dreams was to maybe get good enough to play in the Italian Superlega. So to be fortunate enough to begin my career in such a league is beyond a dream come true. It is one of the best leagues in the world, has a knowledgable and committed fan base, and is a great league for technical development. These are all great things in itself, but lastly being able to live in a beautiful country with such a rich culture and heritage is a bonus for the history lover in me.

What has it been like competing against athletes like Ivan Zaytsev?

It has been a really cool experience as I am a self-proclaimed volley nerd, to now play against people I grew up watching is amazing. It develops a deeper sense of confidence when you succeed against some of the best players in the world. Competition at such a high level does reveal areas in your game that are lacking very fast and it gets quite apparent when some of the best players in the world are trying to exploit your weaknesses.

You mentioned you have an upcoming match against Milano, and Nick Hoag plays for that team. Do you joke about being rivals or what is the camaraderie like?

Volleyball, Hoag against Maar: Milano-Padova

I am fortunate to have been able to play for the senior national team a couple times this past summer so meeting and developing some relationships with guys who are already overseas and have spent some years here has been really helpful. That being said I do keep in contact with some of the guys my own age as well and have a fun time checking in with each other, in fact I ran into Jordan Nowakowski at a gas station in the middle of Italy! So fun little events like this make Canada seem not as far away. I try to tune in and watch some of the guys whether it is domestic competition or champions league, but on the court it is about winning.

What are you hoping to get out of this season, and if you have already, what goals have you set for your next season?

This season my goal is to make the playoffs, and be a top 5 point scorer as a receiver in the league, both are very lofty especially in the Italian championship but it helps keep me focused and gives me measurable things to set myself against. For me next season is really a world away so I haven't given it much thought, I will definitely begin some goal setting once I complete this year and have returned home.

Rebecca Pavan continues to pursue her dreams in Poland

Versatility is such an amazing attribute for any athlete competing at the highest level of their sport. Rebecca Pavan has shown that it's never too late to learn new skills and grow within your sport. She competed at University of Kentucky, and was a member of our Canadian National team before pursing her career overseas. In her first year, she competed for Kopenicker SC where she earned the Best Blocker of the German league for the 2012-2013 season. A middle blocker her entire life, Rebecca made the courageous decision to further her career by moving to the right side. She is currently competing in Poland, in her fifth season overseas, and second season as a right side attacker. We're so excited to see where she goes next, and just a hint - you might be able to watch her competing on the beach this summer! Check out more about her influences and what inspires her to play below.


Club: KW Predators
University: University of Kentucky
Professional: Kopenicker SC: 2012-2013, VC Stuttgart: 2013-2014, Beziers Volley: 2013-2014, MKS Dabrowa Gorniczal: 2014-2015, Budowlani Torun: 2015-2016


What drives you to play?

I think that my love of volleyball drives me to play. I was completely surrounded by the sport growing up. Watching my parents and sister play I developed a passion for volleyball from an early age. It's also special to me as it's something I can share and enjoy with my whole family.

How did growing up in a family heavily involved in volleyball impact your career?

I think having parents who were able to play a huge role in my development really pushed me to try and play at the top level I could reach. Of course watching my sister's success from an early age, I had a great positive role model to look up to.  Seeing Sarah play NCAA, national team and then professionally in Europe made those dreams feel attainable and made me believe it was something I could do if I worked hard enough.

Who is your biggest inspiration and what’s the most important thing you learned from them?

I think my biggest inspiration is my father. I credit him with all of the opportunities I have been lucky enough to have. Without his influence and having him as a coach, I don't think I would be a professional now. The most important thing I learned from him is that I can always improve and to push myself to meet my goals.

You and your sister had the opportunity to play together on the Indoor National Team, can you tell us a little bit about your experience playing on the same team?

There is a four year age difference between me and my sister. Growing up always looking up to her, and never having the opportunity to play with or against her made coming together for the national team a special experience. I was happy to play beside her for our country and learn from her on the court. 2012 was both the first and last time we have played together and I will always cherish and remember it.

This is your fifth season playing professionally overseas, what has been the best part of your experience so far and have you had any major struggles?

The best part of my experience has been all of the people I have had the opportunity to meet.  I feel as though I have had the unique experience of participating in different cultures, that if I were to just visit a place I wouldn't have. Of course there are always downsides like time difference, long distance relationships, and being an ocean away from family and friends, but I still love what I do and I think it's worth it.

You’ve already had a stellar career, do you have any future goals or aspirations for volleyball?

Thanks, overall I hope to continue developing as an opposite since it's my second season in the position. Also, I hope to someday represent Canada again, though it may be on the beach tour.

Do you pursue anything outside of your volleyball career, what are your other passions?

Living abroad has given me the opportunity to learn a lot about the history of Europe, specifically WW2 and after. I love visiting museums and memorials to learn more. I enjoy reading and baking as I tend to have a ton of time for it between practices.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Just that I think volleyball provides an great opportunity to see the world. If anyone has the chance to go abroad I recommend taking it even if it's only for one season.  I think it's great that ONE Volleyball is providing an outlet for elite volleyball players for after CIS, NCAA or playing abroad is finished and it makes me happy that when I choose to finish my professional career in Europe I will have a place to continue doing what I love.

You can check for updates and follow Rebecca's volleyball journey on her Facebook Page.

Featured Challenger Series Competitor: Matty Zbyszewski

Rosters have been released and WOW are we excited to kick off Challenger Event #1. The talent competing on the courts this Saturday is pretty special, and for our last Feature Friday, we wanted to highlight an amazing player who will be back in action on the volleyball courts. Matty Zbyszewski completed his University career at IPFW, where he was recognized as a 1st Team All-American and MIVA Player of the Year. He went on to compete professionally for 3 years, before officially moving to the beach and joining the Canadian Beach National Team. A 2-time Men's Beach National Champion and amazing athlete both on the court and in the sand, we are thrilled to have Matty competing in our 1st Challenger Series tournament. Learn more about Matty's career below, and don't miss his return to the courts this Saturday at Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre.

Photo by Wayne Mah - taken at the 2010 Vancouver Open with Josh Binstock


Club: Toronto West
University: IPFW 2000-2005
Professional: Greece, Cyrpus, Spain 2005-2008
National Team: Indoor – 2004, Beach 2006-2012/13


When you look back on your career, what is your most cherished memory of competing?

First match back after my 2nd ACL reconstruction. It was nerve wrecking, scary and exhilarating all at the same time.

Did your indoor and beach volleyball careers overlap, and what inspired you to make the switch to beach?

Yes they did. I always used beach as a summer cross training activity however never took it seriously. 2007 was the first year I was able to compete at beach nationals and lost a tight final to Mark Heese and Ahren Cadieux. That inspired me to consider beach volleyball in my future. The following year, while playing in Spain, I received a call asking if I would like to join the beach national team. Considering my health, I decided it was a good time to hang up the sneakers and give beach a shot.

What is the biggest difference competing internationally for indoor vs beach? Do you have a preference?

First and foremost, biggest difference is expectation. Indoors, I was paid to perform. Not only do you have to put up points, but the biggest expectation is that the team wins. When you win, everyone is happy, when you lose payments start getting delayed. When your performance suffers you get fired. It’s really mentally exhausting. On the beach, the expectations are yours and yours alone. My preference was always for indoor volleyball. The only reason I stopped playing was from the toll it took on my body. After 5 surgeries, my knees said enough is enough. That said, it was always hard for me to replicate the passion, emotions, swagger I had playing indoors, on the beach.

What was the last tournament or competition you competed in?

Probably some beach tournament. As for indoor, I’ve played a few indoor games over the years but the last true competition was my last pro match in Spain in 2008.

What inspired you to play in ONE Volleyball’s first Challenger Series Tournament?

I came out to play in a mens league night a month ago or so and really got the itch back. Though physically I'm not where I want to be, the fire hasn’t died down one bit.

For athletes who are close to retirement, what is the best advice you would give them for making the transition from life as a professional athlete?

This is probably the hardest thing to figure out. Everyone’s journey is different and everyone needs to discover their own path. The fire does go out in some, making the transition easier, in other it burns on. It has taken me years to transition, yet my mind still feels like I can do it. My biggest outlets have been my family and coaching.

Is there anything else about your career or your involvement in volleyball now that you would like to share?

Volleyball has been such a huge part of my life. I’ve met most of my best friends through volleyball. I met my life partner and have 2 amazing little girls, through volleyball. I had some amazing mentors through out my career who helped to shape me into a great player and hopefully a better person, and I hope I can reciprocate that as a coach to the younger generations of volleyball players in Canada.