A pair of Merritt Secondary School sports teams enjoyed considerable success away from home this weekend.

Both the MSS swim team and senior girls volleyball squad were in Revelstoke — the former competing in the Okanagan zone championships, and the latter in a 12-team competition involving schools from throughout the south-central Interior region of the province.

The eight-member MSS swim team, coached by Leroy Slanzi, had a great swim meet in the shadow of the Rockies. Every swimmer recorded at least one PB (personal best) with Taleesha Clarke shattering all four of her previous best efforts.

Top-10 performances included Jensen Cavaliere (50m Back and 50m Free), Haley Zabek (50m Back and 50m Fly), Laura Lefebvre (50m Back), Rahul Chhabra (50m Breast and 50m Fly) and Taylor Carmichael (50m Free, 200m IM, 100 Free and 100m Back).

Carmichael has qualified for the provincial high school championships in the 50m Free event, as has the MSS 200m Freestyle relay team of Cavaliere, Zabek, Lefebvre and Madison Shea.

The high school swimming provincials are slated for Richmond on the November 14 to 15 weekend.

In senior girls volleyball action, Merritt Secondary defeated host Revelstoke 25-20, 25-12 to take the bronze medal at the two-day tournament.

The plucky MSS squad is comprised of just four Grade 12 students, two players in Grade 11 and five Grade 10s.

Merritt went 2-1 in pool play, losing only to Okanagan-Mission 25-18, 27-25 in a close match. The Panthers then went on to win their quarter-final match against Lumby’s Charles Bloom 25-18, 25-14, and their semi-final over Winfield’s George Elliot in a three-set thriller 25-17, 15-25, 16-14.

“All the teams that attended [the tournament] were AA schools like Merritt,” said parent Cathy Sloan. “It was exciting to see how MSS faired against other teams in the Okanagan.”

The MSS senior girls volleyball team is being coached this fall by first-year teacher Mike Russo who is currently filling in for a maternity leave. The native of Winfield has an extensive background in the sport.

“I started playing when I was really young and just kind of kept going. My family background includes several volleyball players who competed at quite a high level. My older brother played. That’s what kind of kept me going. I was emulating him a bit.

“Being a setter, it was like being in a big chess match for me,” Russo said. “I just love the game.”

Russo played both high school and club volleyball growing up, and made the team at the University of the Fraser Valley before transferring to the University of Victoria which has no men’s varsity volleyball program.
Russo knew he’d probably be coaching something when he took the temporary Merritt teaching position in September. When senior girls volleyball became available, he jumped at it.

“The experience has been great,” he said. “As a team, we still have a lot to learn, but the girls have been great. They work extremely hard, they’ve always got a smile on their faces, and they’re very receptive to any feedback. There are no team issues; they’re just a really nice group which makes coaching them easy.”

Asked about his team’s identity, Russo said, “We’re just a scrappy team from Merritt. We cover really well on defence and pass well. Our team motto is ‘Keep the ball in play, and the other team will win the game for us’. Other teams will make mistakes, and we make them pay.”

The MSS senior girls team is currently involved in West Zone league play on Tuesday nights. Most games are in Kamloops, although the Panthers are set to host two visiting teams on November 4 starting at 5 p.m.

The Tuesday night matches have been challenging as there are actually only two AA schools in the league — Merritt and Westsyde. The other four teams — Sahali, Valleyview, NorKam and South Kamloops — are all triple-A schools drawing from much larger student populations.

“Our first goal is to make it through playoffs and get ourselves into the Okanagans,” Russo said.

“Once there, we’ll just enjoy the experience, and let the chips fall where they may, so to speak.”