*This is a feature that I wrote for the Cranbrook Townsman on a member of the College of the Rockies Avalanche volleyball team.*
In his second and final year with the Avalanche, outside hitter Patrik Toze is a bonafide PACWEST star. The young Australian may be a long way from home, but whenever he steps on the volleyball court, there is no doubt that he’s exactly where he belongs.
“It was my dad’s [idea]… volleyball in Australia is not very big at all, but when we moved from one state to another, he just said, ‘Pat, why don’t you try volleyball?’ And, I was like… ‘might as well.’”
The way Patrik Toze began his volleyball career isn’t your typical story of a future star. He wasn’t born dreaming of playing the sport, wasn’t a prodigy, and it wasn’t even his idea to start playing.
“I started in eighth grade, just in high school, nothing special. I started off riding the bench, you know, nothing crazy,” Toze says, explaining that his initial desire to play volleyball was mostly based on it being an indoor activity.
“I didn’t want to play cricket at the time and stand in the sun for 5 hours,” he says with a laugh. “And it just kind of took off from there.”
Growing up, Toze was always playing sports and before he took up volleyball, he already had experience with soccer, basketball, rugby, cricket, tennis, swimming, track and field, and Aussie rules football.
It wasn’t until he was in his final year of high school that he began to seriously believe he had a future in volleyball.
“I was heavily involved with academies in Australia. I looked at my options and Australia doesn’t have very many university sports, so I looked overseas and I found a couple of places and applied and happened to get into College of the Rockies.”
Although Cranbrook is a lot different than Brisbane, where he spent the majority of his youth, Toze didn’t take long to acclimatize and to love his new home.
“The cultures from Australia to Canada are pretty similar, but the culture shock was still huge. I don’t like the cold very much — I’m not a fan of that — but I’m having a blast so far. Great people, great place. Can’t get enough of it.”
Coming from a city of over two million people, Toze has also enjoyed the small-town feel of Cranbrook immensely and it’s certainly helped stave off homesickness.
“[Cranbrook] has a real good community vibe. I love how everything is within walking distance basically. You walk down the street sometimes and you just know people when you see them. You go ‘oh yeah I know you!’ It just doesn’t happen in Brisbane.”
He says that within weeks after arriving last September, the intimate feel of the town and the college campus gave him a feeling of belonging.
“I lived with six roommates [at the COTR residence], so it was like switching from one family to another family. Especially, since my family is thousands of kilometers away, it’s easy for me to go…these are my brothers and sisters now.”
While he was just happy to be a member of the family, his personal accolades quickly piled up in his rookie season with the Avalanche. In 2015-16 he was named the men’s team MVP and Rookie of the Year, while also being named the top rookie for the entire PACWEST. In addition, he was named to the conference’s All-Rookie and 1st All-Star teams.
These sorts of awards were nothing new for Toze. In Australia, he had been named the 2014 under-19 state most valuable player. He was also the most valuable player for the State Schools Cup, as well as the Aggregate Interschool College Cup in 2013, in which Toze holds national records in blocking, spiking and service aces.
But for someone who has so much clout to his name, he doesn’t really talk about himself much at all. His attention is all on his teammates — his adopted family — and they trump any trophy or record.
When asked what he’d like to accomplish this year, he quickly put the focus on others.
“Getting my grades to a high level [is important] but probably number one for me is winning provincials. It’s just, these guys, they work so hard, we really want to get there.
“Most of the guys from last season are back this year and they were just incredible [to me]. I’ve done some recruiting trips for other schools and it’s nowhere near the same. These guys are really good.”
He says the bond between Avalanche teammates is unparalleled.
“We are really family orientated here at COTR. [Rookies] come to the team and immediately, they have a job to do, they become part of the team, they hang out with the team … they get too much of us really! We hang out a lot.“
Despite only being a sophomore, this season will be Toze’s last with the Avalanche as the kinesiology program he is currently taking only lasts two years. He recently committed to attend Mount Royal University in Calgary next season, where he will continue his education, and move up to the CIS, the highest level of university athletics in Canada.
Toze’s focus right now, however, is squarely on winning the PACWEST’s ultimate prize, and, of course, out-performing the women’s team.
“We’re almost competitive [between the Avalanche men’s and women’s teams]. The guys have to do better than the girls [and] the girls have to do better than the guys,” he says with a laugh. “It goes back and forth … in the end, we both just want to see each other do well.”
Toze says that watching the women win the conference championship last year by defeating VIU, the top team in the country, was an amazing and inspirational moment.
“That game was unreal. Though it hurt for us, that we had to live in their shadow for that week, we do share in the success, a lot,” he said. “It reflects on the Avalanche as a whole, both the men’s and women’s teams, when that happens. I saw how hard they worked for it last year and it just reflects how well they did.”
Now, it’s up to him and his teammates to take what they learned from the women last year and do it themselves. After losing in all four of their opening matches on Vancouver Island against VIU and Camosun, Toze led the Avs to two straight home victories against Douglas College over the weekend.
He sees enormous potential in this year’s squad.
“We had a pretty rough pre-season training. We didn’t get a lot of game time against other teams [and] had a lot of injuries, so when we came straight into the road trip … it’s tough. But we’re not put away … we really think we can come back from this. We need to sort out a few issues, but when we do, we are going to be really strong.”
With his immediate future already mapped out and a tight bond with his teammates locked in, there is very little for Toze to worry about right now. Although he says he misses warm temperature in the winter and thinks he might be getting a little too pale for an Australian, he’s having a great time in Canada and it can only keep getting better.
But will he lead the Avalanche to a championship in his final season?
Might as well.