Featured Challenger Series Competitor: Reed May

Reed May makes his debut at Challenger Series Event

Name: Reed May
Club: CRUSH Volleyball Club 13U - 18U
University: University of Alberta Golden Bears 2012-2017

Reed May - libero - Alberta Golden Bears

Reed May - libero - Alberta Golden Bears

A former University of Alberta standout libero, Reed May is eager to tie up his laces again with Eastern Blocks for the 1st Annual Challenger Invitational this coming weekend at the Markham Pan Am Centre.

May comes from a family with a rich volleyball history. His father, John May, was a former volleyball standout at the University of Toronto and has been involved with beach volleyball at both the FIVB and Olympic Games. His brother, Garrett May, played for Western University and competes for Canada on the FIVB beach tour. In fact, it's not often that siblings get to face off against each other but Reed and Garrett have, during the 2014 CIS National Championships final, with Reed coming out on top.

I think it's safe to say that when May stepped foot on the court for the first time, he was going to become a great player. His father established CRUSH Volleyball Club and May was a dominant player for them from 13U to 18U, winning 7 National Championships. From there, May moved to Edmonton to play for the University of Alberta on one of the best teams in the country. He finished his University career in March 2017 with 4 National Championship medals, including back to back gold medals.

Reed May - libero - Alberta Golden Bears

Reed May - libero - Alberta Golden Bears

It's always tough going from training every day to what can seem like a perpetual silence following your University career. Returning home to Toronto for the summer, May joined forces with his father as one of the owners of a men's team in the Toronto Premier League. "My first reaction when my father told me he was buying a team in the ONE Volleyball Premier league was pure excitement!" May says, "I had heard about the draft through former teammates and noticed one of the teams didn't have an owner yet. I was just about to call my dad and suggest he get involved when he walked into the office and told me he had bought the team!"

"When I was presented with the opportunity to get involved at an ownership level I was very excited because I love being around high level volleyball on a regular basis even if I’m not able to get out and play every day," May says.

Knowing he has big shoes to fill, he seemed both eager and honoured to start this adventure with his father, "Being in volleyball environments with him, I see how big of an impact he’s had on the community by the sheer number of people he stops and chats with at the events. I can see the respect people have for him in the community and how much value his perspective has. I would consider myself very lucky if I had even a fraction of the impact on the community that he has over his many years in the sport."

With a bit of time yet to plan for the upcoming 2018 Toronto Premier League season, May hopes to help his team win their first Challenger Series Title, "I’m always looking for opportunities to get back out on the court and compete. It’s in my DNA."

University of Alberta Golden Bears at the 2014 CIS Men's National Volleyball Championships

University of Alberta Golden Bears at the 2014 CIS Men's National Volleyball Championships

American couple join forces with Canucks for first Challenger Event

Stephanie Champine is no stranger to the Challenger Series, her American team PVL team 'Lakeshore Surge' competed in the 2nd Challenger Event last year, finishing second to Galaxy Prime. Now she's back, joining the new Unity Reign team for the first Challenger Event of the season. Fellow American [and boyfriend] Shaun Dryden has joined her this time, teaming up with the 'Goon Squad'. This dynamic duo is a power couple in the American volleyball world, and we love that they've decided to head north to spike our competition.

Stephanie Champine
College: Junior College at Owens
College: D1 Austin Peay in Tennessee
PVL Team: Lakeshore Surge
Loves: dogs - "I have puppy fever!"

Shaun Dryden
College: LA Pierce
University: Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne
PVL Team: Team Pineapple

Stephanie Champine was looking for a right side in a tournament down south when someone recommended Stephanie Neville. "I absolutely loved her playing style and personality so I started picking her up for more tournaments. Then she started inviting me out to tournaments her way," Champine says. "I love meeting and playing with or against new people so I'm always excited to get picked up for new tournaments. Being able to drive just 6 hours to play in a different country is pretty awesome."

Champine was recently inducted as a part of her team into her high school Hall of Fame, where her jersey is retired. But coming out of high school, she wasn't sure she wanted to play anymore. "My high school coach didn't believe in me at all," she says. "She told me I wasn't going to play in college."

She decided not to pursue college until she was suddenly approached with a full ride from Owens. "[It was the] best decision of my life - my love and passion for the sport just took off. I wanted to play every day, as much as I could and I started getting better and better."

Champine went on to be an All-American for 2 years at Owens, and an All-American another 2 years at Austin Peay - a Division 1 college in Tennessee - and is a testament to how successful you can be in volleyball at any age. "I was a late bloomer. I was super lucky to have awesome college coaches who knew how to push me in the way I needed to be pushed. I wouldn't have gotten anywhere in volleyball without them," she says. "I also wouldn't have met my better half!"

Shaun Dryden decided to give volleyball a try in grade 9, and ended up dropping every other sport the next year to focus on volleyball. "I kept improving and my love for the game grew at the same time. I have not looked back since," he says.

After his time at LA Pierce College and IPFW (Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne), he joined one of the top PVL teams, Team Pineapple, started by former National Team setter and Olympian Lloy Ball. "We have been competing in the top tournaments in the USAV Open Championships, and won the 2015 and 2016 Championships back to back."

In 2017, Team Pineapple lost to the California Blizzard's who picked up Premier League athlete Ray Szeto. "I hate to lose period," Dryden says, "Any loss that I have sticks with me, and I try to learn from it so the mistakes don't happen again."

Stephanie and Shaun were introduced at the Doble (PVL touranment in Michigan that Canadian's frequent every year), in 2015 but had more time to get to know each other at the USAV National Championships later that year. "He continued to keep in touch with me even though he was living two hours away," Champine says. "We made plans to hang out a few weeks later and the rest is history!"

You can catch this All-American couple at the first Challenger Series event presented by Neighburr - Saturday, October 21st, 2017 at the Scarborough Pan Am Centre.

About: the PVL is the American Premier Volleyball League - a collection of tournaments you can play to quality for the USA National Volleyball Championships that boasts a $40,000 purse - $10,000 1st, $6,500 2nd and $3,500 3rd for both men and women. The League unfortunately folded last year, but the teams remain in competition in various tournaments in order to compete at the National Championships in May.

Malin Lindgren - From Sweden to Canada

Club: Svedala Volleyball Club
Professional: Orebro Volley, Sweden
Junior and Senior National Team in Sweden

Malin Lindgren playing professional volleyball for Orebro Volley

Malin Lindgren started playing volleyball at the age of 6 for Svedala Volleyball Club, which was founded by her mother. Growing up in Europe, she saw a completely different sport environment that we have in Canada. "Sports look a little different as it is typically not offered in school, but done through a club system." Lindgren says. "I guess [that is] the biggest difference between Volleyball in Europe vs. Canada."

There is ample opportunity for anyone in any part of Swedish society to play a sport and it is heavily supported making it free, or for a very small fee - so everyone can play. "Youth Sports in Sweden is generally subsidized in some ways by the government, typically making it affordable for everyone to play for a club," she says.

She quickly fell in love with volleyball for both the team aspect and the strong mental game one requires to be successful, and she was really good. "I started with the Junior National Team at the age of 13 and from there I was one of ten players accepted to our National Sports Academy High School," she says. All dreams come with sacrifice, and for Malin it meant leaving home at the age of 15 to pursue Volleyball.

The Junior National Team exposed her to an array of high quality players on an International scale.  "We played in the Swedish Pro League from September to April/May, in addition to travelling Europe for the Nordic Championships, European and World Cup Qualifiers and 8 National Tournaments," she says. At only the age of 17, she played her first game with the Senior National Team and played until she was 24, when she suffered an injury that ended her career. "I slipped while sprinting up to the net and sustained a fracture and cartilage injury in my foot. I didn't think it was too bad at first and played on it for two months before I realized that it wouldn't go away on it's own and I needed surgery."

Needing a change in pace, she looked outside of Sweden for new challenges and opportunities, and landed on Toronto. Though she has played in other local leagues since her arrival in the 6ix, this will be her first tournament with ONE Volleyball and she states this type of program is missing from Canadian Volleyball. "I think it's sad that for most players there is no where to go after high school or University unless you are lucky enough to get a Professional contract in another country. In Europe there are several Professional or Semi-Professional Leagues at different levels, which means you can continue your volleyball career at a fairly high, fairly competitive level for really as long as you want or are able to."

She notes another difference between the sport culture in Sweden and Canada; volunteers. "Volleyball in schools here may offer the sport to those who cannot afford to play club but is often run by volunteer coaches that might be learning as they go. I often wonder what the options are for those player that don't make the school team and cannot for whatever reason access the various clubs around the city." Financial support is the other major difference between Canada and the European sport system, "My club team, Orebro Volley, won 10 consecutive Swedish Championships, the Nordic Club Championships, the Grand Prix and participated in the Euro League." She said they received 400 000 SEK (approximately $60,000) in financial support from the city. 

The crazy thing is this seems like pennies to Lindgren, and she notes that lack of funding is one of the reasons Sweden isn't more successful on the International Stage. "The local Mens Soccer Team received approximately 14.7 million SEK (approximately $2,210,830)," she says. So it sounds like volleyball has a ways to go there, which is something it does have in common with Canada. 

Chris Voth: Athlete, Leader and Role Model

It's the best time of the year - playoff season! First, a huge congratulations to UBC Thunderbirds Women's Volleyball and Trinity Western Spartans Men's Volleyball for earning the first ever USports Volleyball Championship titles this weekend. It was a weekend filled with great matches and amazing crowds in both Toronto and Edmonton! If you didn't catch the action live, you can still watch the matches here. Although the USports Volleyball Championships are over, playoffs are just heating up for our Canadians competing overseas. We caught up with Canadian Chris Voth, following his last match of regular season Saturday, and heading into playoffs this week.

Chris Voth (12) blocking against fellow Canadian Steve Hunt (5)

Chris Voth (12) blocking against fellow Canadian Steve Hunt (5)

Post-Secondary: University of Manitoba
Professional: Abiant Lycurgus Groningen, NL (2014-2016), Perungan Pojat - Team Lakkapää (2016/2017)
Senior National A/B Team: 2011- 2016

Chris picked up a volleyball younger than most, with parents who were heavily involved in the sport as both coaches and athletes. He fell in love with the game at a young age, having the opportunity to watch high level University and National team matches in Manitoba. "I started idolizing the players [at the games] and wanted to be like them."  After graduating from High School he joined his sister, Ashley, at the University of Manitoba. Having an outstanding career as a Bison, Chris was selected to compete with the National Team at two FISU games in both 2011 and 2013, and has since continued to train with the National Team Program. He competed his first two seasons abroad in the Netherlands, where he earned a North Dutch Cup Championship and a Silver Medal in the Erendivise League.

Currently competing for Lakkapää in Finland, Chris and his team are excited heading into a best of 5 playoff series against the defending Champions and 4th place seed, Tiikerit. The match up happens to be against fellow Canadian, Steve Hunt, who has had an outstanding season in Finland this year. Chris joined the Finnish team half way through the season, helping them to a 5th place finish in the league, and hoping to help make a difference in their playoff push. Although Chris competed with a top 2 team in the Netherlands, the Finnish league is strong and the level has proven to be a step up. "There’s just a lot more experienced players and not as much of a drop off after the top couple teams."  Chris is very happy with his decision to play in Finland, and is looking forward to competing in the upcoming playoff series. But the road to get where he is today has not been easy, and Chris has shown great courage and strength, becoming a role model for athletes all of the world. 

In 2014, Chris came out as the first openly gay male volleyball player competing with the Men's National Team. Although his close friends had known for quite some time, coming out to his family and the volleyball community was a courageous step that Chris was ready to take. Support flooded in from the community, teammates and other athletes, but new challenges arose for Chris including setbacks and barriers for his volleyball career. After competing in the Netherlands for a team who was accepting and supportive, Chris was brought to a new realization of the barriers for LGBTTQ athletes when he lost a contract this past summer due to his sexual orientation. This setback sparked an even stronger desire within him to go after his dreams and to compete, showing other athletes that it is possible to be out and still be successful in sport.

"The experience in the summer wasn’t ideal, but it did allow me the opportunity to address the issues about sexuality in sport. Until that point, I would always read people’s comments that athletes don’t need to keep coming out and it doesn’t matter. In an ideal world it wouldn’t matter, but we aren’t there yet. The sporting culture around the world isn’t accepting and many athletes are afraid to come out. I’ve gotten many messages from athletes in different sports all around the world and it’s surprising to hear their stories. At the Olympics, there were 60+ out athletes, but only 11 were men and none were team sport athletes. This is a huge red flag for me and hopefully others. We have made progress but we are by no means close to perfect. There’s a lot of room to grow and I’m just trying to keep continuing that battle for the other gay athletes out there. Athletes are role models in the community and by changing the sport culture, I also hope that it changes the cultures outside of sport that may be a bit more conservative."

Chris has been an amazing leader, and is changing attitudes all over the world. Just a few weeks ago, he walked alongside his Finnish teammates and members of the club in Arctic Pride. The Pride took place just days after Finland legalized same sex marriage and the support shown by the small Northern community was felt by all. Being well known through the community, the crowd was chanting their team name and congratulating them. But as Chris said, although progress has been made, it is so important for us to continue to grow as an accepting and inclusive society. Chris talks below about what we can do as athletes, teammates and fans to help move us forward, as well as some of the amazing initiatives and organizations he is currently involved with.

"I do think there are a lot of barriers still. I think that it starts with the athletes themselves. From personal experience, a lot of negative thoughts come into your head when first discovering your sexuality. So if we can have more “out” athletes to set examples for others, that will help more come out. Another potential area for improvement would be the team. In sport, harsh language can really deter someone from coming out because they don’t feel welcome. Words matter. You may think you’re joking or that it doesn’t matter, but if someone is struggling in their own head, those words carry a lot of weight. It’s also scary risking being alienated from your team if you do come out, especially in volleyball because it is such a team sport. The teams themselves can also help by taking the initiative to demonstrate their commitment to being inclusive and accepting. The Canucks just had their Pride Night weeks ago. They don’t have any gay players but they still all wore rainbowed jerseys for warm up. That’s so great to see and I hope that other organizations follow suit. That’s one of the reasons it was so awesome to have our team in Arctic Pride, hopefully it will result in other teams in Finland and across the world to do the same. Lastly, fans can get super into the game. In the summer when I lost my contract, the team blamed opponent fans for the reason they didn’t want me on their team. I have played in many countries, including Russia on several different occasions, and haven’t had a problem. It is great to have passionate fans, but I don’t think we should accept discrimination. That is a tough one to regulate of course. You can see that there are potential problems at every level in the sporting world. It’s a complex issue and I don’t know the answer how to propel us forward. I hope that by being a voice for gay athletes that I can be a part of the solution. I’m hoping to inspire others to come out and to show that it is possible to be out and still succeed in sport."

"I have been a part of several different organizations since coming out. However, the one closest to my heart is Out There Winnipeg Sports and Recreation. When I first came out, I went to a gay drop in volleyball thing. I spoke about it a bit in my TEDx Talk, but it was funny because I wore ratty clothes because I didn’t want someone from the volleyball community to recognize me, as I was only out to a few people. It was a cool experience because I was terrified about being “out” but had volleyball to fall back on. I was able to just play. It was funny because I was shaking out of fear quite badly, which I’ve never experienced in a real volleyball match. This was different scenario for me. Perhaps that’s why out gay athletes statistically do better than their straight and closeted counterparts, because you strengthen yourself in the process of coming out. Anyways, the volleyball league falls under the Out There Winnipeg umbrella and because it was so important for my personal development, I wanted to offer that same experience to others. I am now the VP at Out There Winnipeg and have put a fair bit of money into it to try and get it off the ground more. We have a new logo, website and many new activities. Check out www.outtherewinnipeg.ca for more info."

Chris' next match is on Wednesday, March 22nd vs. Tiikerit, follow him on his Professional Volleyball journey here.


Pandas Seeking Gold at U Sports Volleyball Championships

It's an exciting time of year as the best teams across the country gather for the final weekend, where one team will be crowned for the 2017 season. On the men's side, the U Sports FOG Men's Volleyball Championships is taking place at the Saville Centre in Edmonton, where top seed and favourite Trinity Western will look to defend their U Sport Men's Volleyball title. Whereas here in Toronto, the University of Alberta Pandas head into the 2017 U Sport Volleyball Championships presented by Jason Rinaldi ranked 1st, looking to take their first U Sport Championship since 2007.

The Pandas Volleyball program, with coach Laurie Eisler (2016-2017 Canada West Coach of the Year) at the helm, is one of the most successful volleyball programs in the country, sitting just behind the UBC Thunderbirds who have claimed an outstanding 10 U Sports Championships. The Pandas, who took home the Canada West Conference title last weekend over UBC, are seeking their 8th U Sport Championship in program history this weekend in Toronto. With a strong season behind them, finishing 22-2 in the regular season, the Pandas feel more prepared then ever to hit the court this weekend.

"We have put in so much work as a team this year, and for the group of us graduating, we have put in 5 years worth of work (as well as all of the club years!) for this weekend.  To be rewarded as the best team in U Sport Volleyball is a pretty special accomplishment and is what we strive for every season." Meg Casault, 5th Year Panda and Canada West Player of the Year

As many of us know, the regular season means nothing in playoffs, where anything can happen in a single elimination bracket. No one knows it better than this Pandas squad. In 2015, many of these same athletes took the court in the Championship Final, where a relentless Trinity Western team came back from being down 2 sets, to win their first ever U Sports Championship, a daunting repeat of the Canada West Finals the weekend prior. And again in 2016, the Pandas, who had seemed to bounce back with a strong 2015-2016 season finishing 20-4 in regular season, fell short in Canada West Final Four, failing to reach Nationals for only the 2nd time since 2003.

Meg Casault - U of A Pandas Volleyball

Meg Casault - U of A Pandas Volleyball

For three Pandas athletes, including 5th Year Meg Casault, it will be the last chance to claim the U Sports Championship Title. "It would mean the world to me to end my career on a high note and to have that gold medal and that banner at the end of it. I am so proud of the work our team has put in this year in order to prepare us for this weekend. We have learned just how difficult it is to win and that no one is going to give it to us." Meg Casault has had an outstanding career with the Pandas, being named a First Team All-Canadian for the last three consecutive years. This season, Meg broke the Canada West All-Time Conference Kills record, and goes into the 2017 U Sports Championship named the 2017 Canada West Player of the Year.

The No.1 Pandas will face a tough opponent and host, No.8 Ryerson Rams, in their first round Quarter-Finals match-up this Friday at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. This will not be the first time this Pandas squad has had to battle the host in Championship play. At the 2015 Championships, the Pandas ousted the University of Toronto in a 0-2 comeback; the 5 set comeback theme that seemed to ripple through the playoffs that year. "There is always the added challenge of being against the home crowd, but for me, that just fuels me to perform. I would pick a packed gym full of the opponent’s fans any day over an empty one! It will be an exciting environment to be a part of-and is what Nationals is all about; showcasing the best in Canada!"

Come out and watch the 2017 U Sport Women's Volleyball Championship presented by Jason Rinaldi from March 17th-19th at Ryerson University right here in Toronto! Tickets are available for purchase here.

1. Pandas (Canada West champions)
2. McMaster Marauders (OUA champions)
3. UBC Thunderbirds (Canada West finalists)
4. Montreal Carabins (RSEQ Champions)
5. Dalhousie Tigers (AUS Champions)
6. Western Mustangs (OUA finalists)
7. Trinity Western Spartans (Canada West bronze medalists)
8. Ryerson Rams (OUA 4th place/hosts)


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."