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Winning in Winnipeg: trip north galvanizes KM

Kettle Moraine galvanized by biennial trip north

Oct. 31, 2012

The Great White North offers a different brand of volleyball, a 17-hour bus ride, a memorable vacation and a chance for the Kettle Moraine boys volleyball team to unify every two years. For coach Tom Gulak, it also provides a homecoming.

Gulak, a native of Manitoba, brings his team on an every-other-year basis to Winnipeg, where it competes in the St. Vital Invitational. The 16-team gathering operated by a longtime prep volleyball coach in the province and Gulak's former mentor during his student-teaching days.

"Every two years, that's really what drives our program," Gulak said. "The kids have such a good time; it's such a positive experience to travel. The younger kids in our program know it and want to make the varsity team as a junior or senior because they want to travel to Canada. Shane (Reid, former assistant and current Arrowhead coach) is going to jump on that bandwagon since he's been on that trip (and take his team up there). Marquette goes up there in the off year we don't. Last year, he had such a strong team (at Marquette) and they lost in that final of that tournament against a team that went on to eventually win the provincial championship in Manitoba. That team that won it was a class above everyone else."

During this year's mid-October voyage, the Lasers settled for fifth, though they won five of six matches overall. Kettle Moraine, which will play in Thursday's sectional final for a berth in the state tournament, always finds a way to gel after its northern exposure.

"We've kind of had stages of progression," said senior Sean Leahy, who made his second Canadian trip. "We played a four-set match against Muskego (and lost), then went to Canada and played a five-set match and lost. We came back and played Catholic Memorial and went five sets and won."

Leahy said the opportunity to see Canada fueled his desire to make varsity as a sophomore two years ago.

"That's how a lot of people feel," he said. "A lot of kids who didn't make that cut right away were disappointed because they didn't get to go."

The team does extra fundraising (every athletics team at Kettle Moraine participates in the Laser Card fundraiser) to finance the voyage, and the team also visits the Royal Canadian Mint, which produces coins for 75 countries. That's where the "fundraising" took a more literal spin -- Leahy said during the tour, players were invited to hold a hunk of gold worth three-quarters of a million dollars.

"It's relatively inexpensive but very educational," Gulak said. "The kids just see so many differences, even when we go out to a historical area of Winnipeg. They see things, and not just the way (Canadians) talk. There are a lot of little things you take for granted being a Canadian."

Those differences included a bowling excursion (five-pin bowling instead of the usual 10) and a different variety of play on the court.

"I was expecting a scrappy kind of volleyball, which it definitely was," said senior Alex Koenig, making his first Canadian trip. "In Wisconsin, kids want to go for the big hits, but in Canada, they want to go for corners, which is a lot more effective and actually a lot more fun."

Said Gulak, "They dont run their key guys out of the middle, they have a lot of average height guys but a lot of teams have their big guys on the outside. Our guys in the middle played really well all weekend. Those teams were a little surprised by us because we have two really good middles. The rest was transition, scrappy defense, what we're always trying to strive for."

Then there was a team bonding element, featuring hours of GameCube on the bus during the hours-long journey through the Dakotas.

"This whole team creates such a fun atmosphere to be around," Koenig said.

The Lasers never got a chance at two of the better teams in the tournament, but Gulak was most encouraged by his team's win over the Crusaders.

"We could have played with them but we never got a chance," Gulak said of the tourney's best teams. Overall, I saw a lot of good things. For us to go back and forth and lose in a best of five, and then we went right into CMH on Wednesday, down 2-0 and came back. To play three matches that tired (and fare well) was just great."

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