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Coach Robert Kabvitok finds it hard not to show favoritism for former players

Taking part in a special clinic arranged in February of 2024 by coaches Robert Kabvitok and Holly Mercer for the 2024 Rankin Inlet Royals junior girl’s volleyball team are, front row, Lexi Dion, and, back row from left, Mercer (coach), Kortni Mckay (18), Makayla Kaludjak (4), Team Canada women’s volleyball head coach Shannon Winzer (special guest), Gianna Kaludjak (13), Mia Autut, Atuat Hickes (17), Kara Tatty (14) and Kabvitok (coach). Photo courtesy Robert Kabvitok

Another successful weekend of volleyball action wrapped up on May 5 with Team Iqaluit defeating Team Baffin to claim the men’s championship and Team Iqaluit defeating Familia to claim the female crown at the annual Laura Gauthier Memorial (LGM) Volleyball Tournament in Rankin Inlet from May 2 to 5.

A total of 21 teams — 12 female and nine male — took to the court for this year’s event.

The LGM is always an interesting time for Rankin’s Robert Kabvitok, who often gets to play against boys he’s had the chance to coach in the past, while also trying not to show too much favoritism towards the many females he’s coached over the years with the Rankin Inlet Royals junior girl’s volleyball team.

Kabvitok, who’s been coaching volleyball for more than a decade, said there are a number of players that he plays against during the LGM that, at one time or another, he used to coach.

“There’s some junior boys I coached at the 2017 NAIG (North American Indigenous Games), Westerns and Arctic Winter Games,” said Kabvitok.

“There’s still a bunch of them who are still playing, mostly with Iqaluit.

“It’s a good feeling. I had my son with me this year (Sulurayok Mercer), who is 14 years old and has, really, just started playing volleyball, so it was fun helping him improve his game to get into competitive volleyball.”

Kabvitok said in some ways it can feel a little weird to play against guys he used to coach.

He said every now and then you can’t help but flashback and remember them playing when they were a lot younger.

“As a coach, you’re proud to watch them playing so well.

“You feel, in some ways, you really helped them develop their game and they’re still playing.

“On the junior girls side, there are a number of them that I go back with on the Royals team. My wife (Holly Mercer) and I just have big smiles on our faces. We turn to their parents and they’re smiling away too, so that makes us feel like we did an OK job coaching them.

“You feel so proud watching them play all weekend. You’re trying hard not to show it too much, but you can’t help but feel a little proud over how well of a player they’ve all become.”

Kabvitok said it’s no easy task to appear neutral and not show too much favoritism during a tournament that has players on the court who you used to coach.

He said when he’s sitting with the crowd, some of the junior girls will, kind of, look at him and smile, which, sometimes, can be funny because it’s a little uncomfortable.

“I try to avoid eye contact because I know they’re looking for approval, or something of that nature, from me. So I just, kind of, turn away and pretend that I didn’t even see it,” he said with a slight chuckle.

“It feels so good, though, to see young players still playing volleyball since they were juniors and they’ve become such strong individual players.

“We still have that bond — me as a coach and them as a player — and, I think, really, that’s how it should be with a volleyball family. We came so close a couple of times at winning a medal at the AWG. You just want to continue that drive to win something, especially at the LGM because it’s one of the hardest tournaments around to win at.

“It’s really picking up again with the overall calibre of the teams and that’s good to see.”

Kabvitok said the bond between coach and player can be a strong one. He said it’s an awesome feeling to see girls improve so much on the court when they still have a ways to go playing competitively.

“Most of these girls are only 15 or 16 years old and they still have three or four more years to go in juniors, so, of course, as a coach, you can’t help but get excited about that.

“I’m at the age where you’re missing out on being out on the land, going to the cabin and whatnot. But, when you see at the tournament what you worked on with the girls all-year long, and they’re playing so well, you just want to keep on going.

“It really gets in your blood. Once my wife and I stepped away from coaching for a bit, but (phys ed teacher) Steve Faulkner asked us to go back because there were so many girls wanting to play. And we did.

“We need to get a better program going in Rankin because my wife and I just can’t do it alone. We just need a few more people to step up and I think we’d have a really good program going in Rankin.”

About the Author: Darrell Greer, Local Journalism Initiative

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