By Garrett Simmons
For the Times
Taber’s Alyssa Pavka knows a little something about suffering setbacks and persevering through them.
An injury halted her senior sea- son at St. Mary’s High School and last spring, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to the U18 spring season.
Through it all, however, Pavka has signed on to play post-secondary volleyball for the Lethbridge College Kodiaks.
Anna Schwark, Kodiaks head coach, said the Taber volleyball product is the complete package as a player and as a person.
“Alyssa’s maturity is something to be appreciated along with her physical skills,” said Schwark. “She communicates with her team- mates and coaches very effectively and she understands, especially in these tough times, that looking out for one another and creating quality connections with her teammates is so important.”
Pavka’s mature outlook comes honestly, as her game has transformed since her senior season at St. Mary’s, when she suffered a major injury that derailed a promising season.
“My senior season started out strong,” said Pavka. “We came home with a gold medal from Senator Gershaw at the end of September and I was hoping to help lead my team to more first-place finishes. Unfortunately, a few days after this, I had a collision with my setter during practice, and had suffered from an ACL avulsion fracture that would take me out for the rest of the season.”
Never one to sit out a game, the time off saw Pavka become more like an assistant coach, which helped her develop as a leader. That experience served her well, when after two-and-a-half months in a splint, she finally returned to the court for her U18 club season, which included another major change.
“By the time I was ready to play I had missed over a month of the club season, but I didn’t care because I really just wanted to play volleyball again,” said Pavka. “I made the decision to transition from a left side hitter to a libero, a position that I could thrive in, while also being a little bit gentler on my knee.”
Unfortunately, the club season was abruptly cancelled mid-March, as COVID-19 began to take hold in Alberta.
Before the pause, however, Schwark reached out to Pavka with an offer.
“She informed me that they had a libero/defensive specialist position for me at the college and would love for me to join the team,” said Pavka. “I was super excited that she wanted me for the team, but shortly after the offer, I became anxious with the possible effects the pandemic would have on this opportunity. Regardless of this, I signed the letter of intent with the college, in hopes I would get to play as a Kodiak the upcoming season.”
The pandemic meant no summer training for the Kodiaks, but players were able to complete a virtual training program through an app.
“By the time September rolled around we were permitted to practice twice a week at the college, as well as use the fitness centre,” said Pavka.
“It was an extremely beneficial opportunity, as I got to play with girls up to three years older than me who pushed me to improve so much even over the short time we had together so far.”
However, competition was cancelled for the first semester and soon after, the ACAC season was cancelled. New Alberta Government restrictions also put a halt to practice.
But despite an unconventional first season, Schwark has already witnessed improvement in Pavka.
“Thus far in practice she has impressed the team with the consistency of her gameplay and her willingness to try new things,” she said. “As part of our offensive system, we are trying to get our liberos more comfortable with setting the second contact, and this is something in particular Alyssa has pushed herself to become better at.”
That constant improvement has been a staple of Pavka’s game, all the way back to Grade 9, when she was invited to try out for the U15 Panthers volleyball team, operated by Chris Perry in Chin.
“This was the first opportunity I received to be coached by a set of higher-level coaches to learn the elite skills I would need for a possible post-secondary career,” said Pavka, who added she switched from playing middle to left side hitter.
With that experience, Pavka earned a starting role at St. Mary’s for her Grade 10 season on a team comprised of mostly rookies. Armed with a new passion and intelligence for the game, Pavka played left side hitter in a season that had its share of ups and downs.
“My coach provided me the freedom to develop as an attacker and make a ton of errors along the way. Even though we got our butts handed to us more often than not, I am incredibly grateful for this season and would not change it in any way.”
A spring club season with the Panther U16 team proceeded a Grade 11 season at St. Mary’s that included much higher expectations.
“We no longer could use the excuse of being younger than the rest of the league, and frankly we did not want to,” said Pavka. “We rose quite quickly from the bottom and were able to compete with the bigger Lethbridge schools like Chinook and Catholic Central.”
Pavka developed into a strong attacker and was awarded a first team all-star award and earned MVP honours for her team.
Another spring season, this time with Jamie Bach’s U17 Panthers, helped Pavka hone her passing and defensive skills.
“Our U17 team’s highest ranking that season was fourth in the province, which was pretty awesome because we practised in a barn on a farm, in a tiny town that most people had never even heard of,” said Pavka. “I was also lucky enough to be one of two captains that season, as well as the winner of the Panther VIF (volleyball is fun) award.”
All those experiences, along with growing up through the ranks at St. Mary’s, helped develop Pavka into the player she is today.
“I like to think I am extremely blessed to have been able to develop as an athlete at St. Mary’s School. Being a small school, I got the opportunity to get a lot of court time. I think that’s why I was able to become as good as I did.”
She added her club team was also crucial in her development.
“During my time at Panthers I gained a countless amount of relationships that I will carry with me throughout the rest of my volleyball career and my everyday life,” said Pavka. “This club gave me a strong passion for volleyball and taught me how to compete hard, while still having serious fun.”
And while the club system certainly helped develop Pavka’s game, Schwark pointed to the strong program at St. Mary’s as a huge benefit.
“St. Mary’s every year has a handful of quality volleyball players for us to look at,” she said. “Athletes there have access to great coaches who ensure they’re well-rounded and intelligent players. I think part of the reason their athletes are successful is because they understand they need to work hard and compete – but they have fun doing it. I think this environment really benefited Alyssa well because not only is she working hard every day, but she always has a smile on her face which motivates the rest of the team to have fun and buy in to the training process.”