Some four years ago, Sudbury Miners (Blue) head coach Billy McCreight asked the question.
"We gave them a choice to make, whether they wanted to focus on just having fun, or focus themselves on getting to provincials," he said.
"They chose, right there and then, that they wanted to work harder, to train harder, to get there. I mean, really, they did all of the work. They are getting the "Team of the Year" award because they put in an insane amount of work. They earned it."
And earlier this fall, on an evening hosted by Special Olympics Ontario, the Sudbury Miners were recognized, along with the remaining annual provincial award winners.
For the squad comprised of Krystin Albert, Mathieu Bouillon, Jesse Gascon, Mathieu Gervais, Jared Ladouceur, Will Lang, Amanda Mainville, Matthew Muise, Gary Thompson, Brandon Brown, Shawn Duguay, Kole O'Malley, and coaches Billy McCreight, Lynn Bouillon and Todd Lefebvre, there was many a compelling argument to be made.
"We went to two practices a week, got involved with the Basement Gym (dryland training), worked with a mental trainer weekly, and instead of just coming in and doing basic drills and scrimmages, it was far more intense workouts," noted McCreight.
"There was still a lot of individual work, but a lot of it came down to setting up defensive systems and things like that, so that we could get the team working together, as opposed to just working as five individual players, just running around. They came together really well in doing that."
The results were there. After posting a record of something like 1-13 over the course of the past five years against their regional rivals from Timmins, the Miners would knock off their northern-most foe in capturing their pool at the provincial championships, and coming within a whisker of qualifying for nationals.
"These guys will outwork anybody," McCreight continued. "They came off the floor after every shift and nobody was talking because they can't even breathe. We would get them some water and they're right back out there, a couple of minutes later."
To a player, they took their role to heart. Brandon Brown is a rugged defender, the 25 year old four year veteran typically teamed up with partner Will Lang. "Sometimes he will go up and I stay back, and then I go up and he stays back," noted Brown of the chemistry that he and Lang enjoy.
"I step up really well and take the puck, and I will pass it to my teammates - like Matt Gervais. Last year, I passed him the puck and he scored right in the net." A huge Drew Doughty fan, Brown appreciates the combination of skill and physicality of the Los Angeles Kings blueliner, given his own propensity to occasionally get thumbed for a penalty, perhaps of the slashing or roughing variety.
Yet much deeper than the on-floor storylines of this local team was a very special and meaningful connection with coach and long-time Sudbury and area volunteer Todd Lefebvre, a man who worked with the team for five years before eventually succumbing to cancer this past September.
With his trademark smile and well-known competitive intensity, Lefebvre had been a regular at team practices and events for quite some time. Unfortunately, his illness had left him unable to join his team at provincials.
"Todd had sent a message to us, for the coaches to read to the athletes before the final game," said McCreight. "I didn't know if I should do it, but it's what he wanted. I honestly expected the athletes to have trouble handling it, the emotion, but as soon as it was read, a couple of them, right away, said "we've got a job to do - now let's go do it"."
The extra work with their sports psychologist, combined with the motivation from their in-absentia mentor, clearly paid dividends. The Sudbury Miners had achieved their goal, maintaining their composure until they could not, any more. "Right after we finished winning, there wasn't any of us that were holding ourselves together very well," acknowledged McCreight.
"There was a lot of emotion that day."
Far more subdued, yet celebratory nonetheless, was the post-game gatherings for both the Lo-Ellen Park Knights senior girls volleyball team, as well as the Horizon Aigles juniors, as the local crews claimed top spot in their respective bracket at the Lasalle Lancer Invitational on Saturday.
With the OFSAA boys volleyball championships now in the rear-view mirror, it was time for the young ladies to take to the court and strut their stuff.
Last February, the senior Knights and the College Notre-Dame Alouettes waged some titanic battles on the local front, with CND capturing the SDSSAA banner only to have Lo-Ellen beat them in four sets, less than a week later, with NOSSA bragging rights on the line.
Both teams are expected to be back in the mix this year, with Horizon working hard to close the gap as quickly as possible between their squad and the two front-runners. "We found ourselves without our primary setter, as well as having only seven players on the second day, due to previous commitments," said Lo-Ellen coach Steve Dunlop, who shares the duties with Sheldon Root.
"We ended up playing a 6-2 combination, where we had our right side players hitting and setting, as well as having others playing in positions which are not typically in their comfort zone. The girls reacted well, and well are excited by the versatility of our athletes."
The gold medal winning Lo-Ellen lineup features Katie Staffen, Amelina Itturegui, Danielle Stinson, Hannah Nordquist, Sophie Gaffney, Kyla Parsons, Briele Bisaillon, Sami Dunlop, Lauren Jeanneault, Erika Brown, Emma Squires and Sydney Melanson.
"We need to work on a few aspects of our game, but all in all, we were happy with the results," suggested Aigles coach Patrick Gervais, working alongside assistant coach Lynn Mageau-Gauthier and 2019 graduate Genevieve Gauthier.
"We hope to be one of the top teams again this year."
The battle might be even more closely fought in the junior ranks this year. Lo-Ellen return as both city and NOSSA champions, and very much looked the part, moving into the playoff round of the local weekend tournament, including a preliminary round win against Horizon.
But it was the Aigles who would upset the Knights, and do the same against a Confederation Charger team that looked awfully good on Friday and Saturday, as Horizon walked off with their first ever banner from this tradition-rich event.
"Moving from assistant coach with the novice team to head coach of the juniors, Chantal Trepanier has done amazing work (as coach) with this team," said Gervais. "They are practicing as much as possible, and she expects them to compete, every night."
It's a trait that they share with the Team of the Year.
News and Notes: After remaining as a staple of the early season high-school girls volleyball calendar for well over a decade, the Lancer Invitational is in some jeopardy of not being around in 2020, as long-time organizers Millie Wood-Colton and Kelly Predon step away, quite deservedly, from the scene.