Like many a coach, first year College Boreal Viperes' badminton mentor Julien Belanger would love to see his team groomed in his own image. In this regard alone, the early signs are promising.
"The majority of the players are pushing themselves and want to learn more," noted the Timmins native and former member of the Viperes varsity badminton team at practice earlier this week. "That's exactly how I was, and that's how I want to see my athletes."
Now 25 years of age, Belanger acknowledged a rather quirky introduction to the sport that is now his passion. "I've never been that person to follow the norm, and badminton really wasn't the norm at our school (Ecole Secondaire Theriault - in Timmins)," he said. "I started playing it and it just clicked, so I kept going."
Graduating from high-school, Belanger attended Boreal in the Forestry program, though largely focused on pursuing badminton at the collegiate level. He would soon begin to understand the need to morph his game, first as a player, though now carrying that same strategic mindset with him as a coach.
"I think the biggest thing is that coming from a northern community, a lot of us became used to just hitting it as hard as we can, just smashing it and going for the kill, sort of deal," he said. "When you get to the college level, that doesn't work anymore. The players from the south have often already been exposed to the OCAA style of play."
"If you are coming from the north, you have to adapt to a slower style, longer rallies."
Following two years as a student athlete at College Boreal, Belanger opted to purse his Liberal Sciences degree at Laurentian, all while remaining on-board as a helper to the coaching staff of both the Sudbury Junior Badminton Club, as well as the Viperes.
In 2018-2019, he would serve as assistant coach at his alma mater to Mike Dionne, transitioning one rung up the ladder when the latter decided to step back from the post this year. And like all who have come before him, there are moments where the learning curve of moving from player to coach are more evident than others.
"For me, when I see some of the starter players, it's tough explaining the basics, because in my head, it clicked right away," he said. "For other people, it doesn't click as quickly - so it's about taking the time to show that there is a correct, more efficient way of doing things."
Luckily, Belanger has tapped into some OCAA experience within his six player team, with four of the athletes returnees to the squad. "At first, I was thinking we would be rebuilding, but based on these past few tournaments, it would be nice to get one team to provincials, maybe two," he said.
That won't be easy, with their 2019 representation of a women's doubles team of Lynn Michel and Emilie Roy both having moved on. Perhaps a surprise will come in the form of 19 year old Luc Demers, a Sudbury native, graduate of ESC Sacre-Coeur, now in his second year with the team, and still showing the occasional sign of a racquet sport background that was heavily focused on squash in his youth.
"I tend to hit shots from the side, and people, a lot of the time, don't expect that," said Demers, who teamed with Danika Mayer at Regionals last February in mixed doubles play. "Usually, you hit overhand shots, but sometimes, I will hit side shots, or let it drop a little lower than usual."
"It's definitely a different swing completely," he added. "Badminton is up high, as opposed to squash, which is more on the ground. In squash, I could take my time more, I could let the ball hit the ground and bounce, which gives you more of an opportunity to think about what you're going to hit, versus badminton."
"When you are playing in front, in badminton, you have to be quick. It's just reacting."
A native of Cochrane, Jonathan Boucher is now in his third year with the team, though he doesn't see the road to provincials being any easier this winter, despite his additional experience. "The competition is a lot stronger than it was last year, just generally speaking," noted the 20 year student in the Electrical Technician program.
"It just seems to be a lot more interest this year."
And while he knows that earning a coveted top three placement at OCAA Regionals in Barrie next month may or may not be in the cards, Boucher does not regret his decision to allocate countless hours to the additional training of a varsity athlete.
"I just love the sport, it's my biggest passion," he said. "I like playing fast, I'm pretty good at it - well, maybe not a top player, obviously. But I can be competitive with it. And I'm not good at skating or anything like that, not good on the ice."
Rounding out the Boreal 2019-2020 badminton roster, along with Demers, Boucher and Mayer, are Zackary Brunet, Elliot Prudhomme and Kaitlyn Gelinas.
The Viperes attended the Centennial Colts Invitational Badminton Tournament last weekend, as did the members of the Cambrian Golden Shield varsity squad. After dropping his first round match to Harry Cotaras of Humber (21-14, 21-23, 17-21), Cambrian's Cameron Duff reeled off wins over Nikhil Tallapureddy (Seneca), Leam Hughes (Fanshawe), Manmeet Singh Duggal (Cambrian) and Yaoren Liang (Seneca) to claim the men's singles consolation crown.
The majority, if not all of the athletes from both Boreal and Cambrian are expected to be on hand this Saturday, as well, as the Golden Shield play host to a one day doubles tournament, with Regionals set for the weekend of January 31st to February 2nd, at Georgian College.