The Wetaskiwin Avalanche Juvenile Men’s Volleyball Team, a group of Wetaskiwin 16 to 18-year-olds, was successful in winning the 1981 Juvenile Provincial Volleyball Championships and the Bronze Medal at the National Juvenile Volleyball Championships. They became the first team from Wetaskiwin in any sport to win a medal at a National Championship. The team’s amazing achievements certainly qualify the Juvenile Avalanche for induction into the Wetaskiwin and County Sports Hall of Fame.
The Wetaskiwin Avalanche had been in operation as a Juvenile Men’s Club since 1977. Wetaskiwin Composite High School Coach Larry Ethier formed this club so that his high school players could extend their season from September to May instead of from September to December. They could then enter the Juvenile Men’s Provincials and perhaps qualify for a spot in the National Championships.
Larry also became involved with the activities of the Alberta Volleyball Association, which helped to increase the number of his contacts and his knowledge of the sport. The first season he guided his team to the 1978 National Championships in Fredericton, NB before making another trip eastward with his school squad in 1979, this time to Quebec City.
After missing 1980 Provincials in a rebuilding year, the 1981 squad was ready. After winning the 3A Provincial High School Volleyball Championship, eight members of the 1981-81 Sabres Volleyball team continued on with the Wetaskiwin Avalanche Club. Two members of the 10 member Avalanche team were Edmonton players recruited by Coach Ethier.
In 1981 the Avalanche Club did not compete in a league and had not competed in many tournaments but had been practicing and playing exhibition matches against University, College and Senior Men’s A teams. When a Senior Men’s 1st Division club from Germany was touring to play volleyball through Western Canada the Avalanche team asked to be a part of the tour. The German club were not sure if the Avalanche would be competitive enough.
The Avalanche were respected in Alberta and the University of Alberta Golden Bears Volleyball team (National Champions that year) agreed to play the Avalanche while the coaching staff of Germany’s team watched. Impressed by the play of the Avalanche, the German team agreed to play the Avalanche thereby bringing international volleyball to Wetaskiwin.
The Avalanche team solicited sponsorship in advertising in a game program as a means of hosting the team to a dinner afterwards as well as gaining sponsorship for the team should they qualify to go to Newfoundland for the National Championship. The match was won by the older, more experienced German team 3-1 with scores of 13-15, 15-12, 5-15 and 11-15. It was a respectable showing for the young Avalanche squad. The international match took place in between the Provincial playoff tournaments so it was good preparation for the Wetaskiwin team.
The 1981 qualifying play for the Provincial Championship consisted of three tournaments with different weighting factors. The first tournament was played in Calgary. The Avalanche went undefeated in six matches, losing only one game during the day. After the first tournament, Wetaskiwin was in first place. The second tournament was held in Edmonton and Wetaskiwin ended up second in that tournament behind Calgary. The third tournament was held in Wetaskiwin at the high school and Centennial Elementary. Going into the finals Wetaskiwin had 98 points and Calgary had 95 points so it was “winner take all”. Wetaskiwin won the tournament and the right to represent Alberta at the National Championships in St John’s Newfoundland.
In preparation for their trip to Newfoundland Coach Ethier had his players up jogging every morning at 5 a.m. in an effort to become used to the time difference. To hopefully win a medal, Coach E implemented a new offence and kept the skill level of his players tuned up. As well, he tried to develop a strong team attitude.
Twenty-four teams comprised of 275 athletes converged on the city of St John’s for the National Tournament, to that time one of the biggest events in the city’s sporting history. Once Wetaskiwin won the Provincials, plans were already in place for the team to be billeted with relatives of one player and in four other households. Each night during their stay in St John’s they dined in different homes enjoying the great hospitality of Newfoundland.
In round-robin play in the National Championships the Wetaskiwin Avalanche went undefeated and ended up in first place in their pool by winning against British Columbia 16-14, 15-11, Quebec 16-14, 15-7, Newfoundland 15-2, 15-4, Ontario 17-15, 15-11 and Saskatchewan 16-14, 15-7.
Due to their first place finish, the club received a bye into the semi-finals where they met and lost to the eventual tournament champions, Quebec, by scores of 15-13 and 15-11. A quote in the Wetaskiwin Times from Ethier stated, “If we played Quebec in 10 matches, I’d have to say each team would win five” indicating how competitive the Avalanche were.
With a few breaks going their way they could have won gold. The Quebec loss dropped the Avalanche into play for the bronze medal against the Manitoba Wesman. The locals won the first game 15-10, lost the second 15-3 before coming back to win the third game and the bronze medal 15-9. They lost one match in the tournament and won the bronze medal, an incredible feat for the Avalanche. “It was an amazing year,” said Coach Ethier in the same Times article.
The club was supported by the Legion and other Wetaskiwin service clubs as well as the business and residential community. The Wetaskiwin Avalanche Branch #86 became established as one of the most intense areas for Volleyball in Alberta, a testament to their coach and the athletic ability and dedication of the team members.
The 1981 Wetaskiwin Juvenile Men’s Avalanche Volleyball Club remains the most decorated Volleyball Team in Wetaskiwin’s history. Coming from our small community and winning a medal on the National stage is something the team and our community will always treasure. Congratulations to all of the team members and especially to their Coach Larry Ethier. Larry was inducted into the Wetaskiwin & County Sports Hall of Fame in 2016 as a Builder for all of his efforts with young people in our community. His untimely passing away in 2017 saddened all of us, especially his former students and athletes he coached.
The 1981 Juveniles are a credit to their sport and our community and super role models for the young people of Wetaskiwin and County. Their induction into the Wetaskiwin & County Sports Hall of Fame is well deserved!
Team Members include: Brian Licis, Middle Blocker; Ken Klause, Middle Blocker, Harold Mohler, Setter; Pat McFeely, Setter; Clayton Bodnarek, Power Hitter; Murray Knudsen, setter; Wade Beacon, Middle Blocker; Bill Verbeek, Middle Blocker; Greg Kirwer, Power Hitter; Trevor Norton, Middle Blocker; Larry Ethier, Coach; and Bruce Grant, Manager.
Due to the concerns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic and to honour the request of the health officials within the Government of Alberta to limit social gatherings, the Banquet and Induction Ceremony that was scheduled for April 4 will be postponed and will be re-scheduled when it is appropriate to do so.
Submitted by Wetaskiwin & County Sports Hall of Fame