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Black History Month – Celebrating Black Ontarians in the Volleyball Community

By Ontario Volleyball, 02/10/21, 4:15PM EST


Throughout the month of February, we are going to highlight a number of individuals who have contributed to making volleyball in Ontario more culturally diverse, compassionate and inclusive.

Photo credit: Roger Yip (Left), Michelle Quance (Right)

Funk Roberts

Mark ‘Funk’ Roberts has always been driven to be the best he could be, regardless of sport or in profession. The Scarborough native was born with a competitive edge and was talented in all of the sports he played. After transferring to Dunbarton High School in Pickering, Roberts decided to join the volleyball team, which happened to be filled to the brim with talent. Looking to double his volleyball opportunities in high school, he eventually tried out for the Scarborough Solars volleyball club. As a natural in the sport since the first day he picked up the volleyball, it was assumed by Roberts that he was already one of the best players who were vying for a spot on the team; however, he would not make the team that year.

The rejection left a chip on his shoulder, but it only fueled the fire to improve his skills and to invest more time in the sport in order to become the best player he wanted to be. His determination would prove to be effective. That same year, he would play with both the Regional Team and the Provincial Team and the following year that chip on his shoulder would be alleviated as he made the Scarborough Solars team. Recalling his time on Team Ontario, Funk said that his team was full of some of the best players in Ontario, and that his squad shared a lot of success. His time on Team Ontario helped with his high-performance athlete attitude of "being the best.” At the tryouts, every single person was the top player from their area and they each had an equal chance at making the team. While the experience was challenging, the love for the competition and the environment is what he credits that propelled him to the next level.

Growing up as a black athlete, he wanted to break down some stereotypical barriers that black athletes should only play football or basketball. Instead, Funk loved to stand out and prove that people of color can do other sports. He tried out a variety of them including tennis, hockey, and water polo. Funk wanted to show other black athletes that not only can you just play several types of sports but can dominate in them. In his early days of playing, he recalls his volleyball teams only having a handful of black players. At this time there were many stereotypes in high school and club competitions surrounding the black players. An example of this would be “serving to the black guy because he can’t pass.” Every single day Funk had to hear these remarks, including at times from his own teammates. These comments further drove Funk to prove these engrained stereotypes wrong.

These experiences pushed Funk to want to make a change and remove these stereotypes entirely. Funk never wanted to just be the “token black guy” as he would state. He wanted to be the best.

Following high school, Funk had made the transition to the beach volleyball scene. Despite originally being a middle blocker, Funk improved all his skill sets to make a smooth transition to the beach. He was an incredibly versatile player and the beach gave him the chance to show off more of his skills. On his first year of the Labatt's Blue beach tour, he felt he surprised a lot of people. He then partnered with Roland Lewis who was also a black player and the two had a thriving partnership. He remembers often being underestimated as a pair and even had some teams not warm up against them. The opposition soon would regret it though, as Funk and Roland were one of the most dominant beach pairings in their time.

Not long after they became beach partners, Funk and Roland sat down and decided they wanted to put together an all-black volleyball team. While there were successful black athletes in other sports, Funk did not really have anyone to look up to in volleyball. This was a problem in Funk’s eyes. When deciding to create an all-black team, Funk and Roland had some clear goals. They wanted to create an atmosphere for these players to be more than just “someone who can jump”, but a sport where black players can excel. They also wanted to bring black players together. Funk and Roland created a team called Big Up Volleyball Club for the senior men’s league. Since there were some of the best players in the area on the team, Funk wanted to make sure the environment was rooted in teamwork; to have each other's backs. With this mindset and through arduous work, the Big Up team won Nationals that year. While Funk has many wins at the highest level both indoor and on the beach, he recalls creating this team being his best experience. This was the part of Funk’s volleyball career that he is most proud of. Not only were they able to refute stereotypes within the sport but the team was able to create representation for black players and inspire others to play at an elevated level.

Ever since he had the chip on his shoulder after he failed to make the Solars, he has channeled that mindset into many aspects of his life. As he matured, he also realized it was not about proving everybody else wrong, it was about proving to yourself that you can best you can be. He passionately believes in using that fuel to become better and always improving. From all the valuable things he learned from volleyball, he recalls imagery being such a useful tool for any area of your life. His Scarborough Solars coach, Mike Bugarski, would make his players practice their visualization following their practices and picture themselves succeeding at all the different volleyball movements. He feels that imagery can be attributed to a lot of him and his team's success. Since then, Funk has used that technique in many areas of his life and encourages others to do the same.

Following several years in the corporate world, Funk now devotes his life to helping others become the healthiest version of themselves. In his mid-40's he decided to step away from his job to pursue his career in fitness. Through online platforms, Funk has successfully created an immensely popular fitness businesses, Funk Roberts Fitness and Over 40 Shred Nation, that has received resounding acclaim and global recognition. His business is committed to helping men in their mid-life being in the best shape they have ever been in.

Throughout his athletic career Funk feels he has been surrounded by a lot of great people. Some people that have had a lasting impact on him include his former coach Mike Bugarski, and fellow teammates Roland Lewis, Lloyd Wilke, Steve Benjamin, Dexter Abrahams, and Ian Eibbitt.

Andrew Robb

The current ROC for the largest volleyball province in Canada, Andrew Robb’s ascent as one of the country’s leading referee figures has been an efficient process. A true student of the game and, as he would tell you, a player’s referee.

Robb is a Scarborough native. His parents, who were both born in Jamaica, immigrated to Toronto in the 1960s and have stayed since. In his elementary years at Sir Alexander Mackenzie school is where Robb was introduced to volleyball, but it wouldn’t be completely accurate to call that his favourite sport at the time. An athlete, as he would describe, Robb excelled at all the sports he grew up playing. In the fall, there was volleyball and basketball – the latter he says would have been his real love – and in the summer months he competed on the track and field, baseball, and tennis teams. An athlete at Agincourts Collegiate for five years on a volleyball team that was not in the greatest shape (holding a losing record throughout at that), Robb was a quick-tempered player. Not at all the calm and collected individual that you see taking the stand today.

“I would get fired up on the court. I was a fiery player,” he recalls. “I was receiving yellow cards and red cards but it was never directed at the referee.”

At the end of the match, he would always talk to the referees. One referee in particular would set him on the path that he still walks to this day. His name was Larry Griffith, a Level 3 referee and a person that Robb stills communicates with all these years later. 

“He said to me, after playing do you ever think about getting into refereeing?”.

Robb also points out another individual that would be instrumental in his decision; Tony Gibbons, who he recollects as the only black male referee he had known at the time, would also convince the young Robb to don the whistle and become an official. The late Modris Lorbergs is another crucial person that Robb would accredit his journey to,  taking his Level 1 course back in 1990 that would begin his refereeing career. 

“I’ve been refereeing for 31 years and although there weren’t many – and there still aren’t – referees of colour, that didn’t stop me from getting to my goals,” he said. “I didn’t really think about it. As the years mounted; however, I did notice that not only didn’t you have many people of colour as referees, but you didn’t have that in the game as well. Kind of like hockey, it was predominantly white. I had great mentors growing up and the sky was the limit for me. My skin colour was never an impediment and I moved up the ranks quite easily without any barriers”.

A player’s referee, Andrew understands the athlete’s side, being able to gauge raw emotion and knowing what’s crossing the line. It was the likes of Griffith and Gibbons that helped him see that and is what they wanted to get out of him. To see the different perspective of the game. With that playing background, Robb gravitated quite well. Never too confident, referees need to have some type of nervousness to perform, he says.

“There are times when you make bad calls. I never tried to get my way out of it. I always owned up to it. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Don’t try to cover it up because it becomes downhill after that and the coaches and the players will see through it”.

Throughout his career, Robb has been stern by the rules, but there have been instances where total adherence has caused some sleepless nights. Such as in 2019 at the U18 World Championships in Mexico. It was a round robin between Brazil and China. Two players were coming in for a substitution. One player had the incorrect paddle and Andrew disallowed the motion to continue. The coach was adamant, trying to quickly change the paddle. There was a language barrier. The opposing captain was approaching the stand to say no. The coaches were yelling across the court at him. Andrew was trying to communicate with his R2. Chaos. The minor snafu caused a five-minute delay.

Even though the call was right by the books, sometimes in a situation like this where it was an honest mistake you don’t always have to abide by it, Robb admits. No harm. No foul.

The incident is what Andrew believes cost him from refereeing the gold medal match, but those instances are what help you become a better referee, which would turn out to be correct for Andrew later that year. Following that tournament, Andrew would go on to be the R2 for the gold medal match at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru and later would be selected as R1 for the U19 World Championships Boys gold medal match in Tunisia.

To officiate in those gold medal matches is what Andrew always aspires to when assigned to a tournament and believes should be the goal of every referee in attendance to reach. The road to the international stage for Andrew took around four years, earning his badge in 2012; an achievement he is deservedly proud of.

Outside of the volleyball world, Robb is an Advisor with Desjardins. A loyal employee, he has been with the company for nearly 25 years.

Cecil Clarke

Cecil Clarke, right

Cecil Clarke

Adapt, improvise and overcome.  

It’s a motto that Cecil Clarke has abided by throughout his career and is reflected in his rapport and success as a volleyball referee. Clarke grew up in Scarborough and during his high school years was going to the local YMCA with a group of his friends, which is where his introduction to volleyball began. On the whim, Clarke and his friends decided to head for the upstairs gym and play a game where he was immediately enamored with the sport; so much so that he did not want to stop playing. He continued playing volleyball at the YMCA sometimes up to five days a week because of how much he was enjoying it. Clarke then played for his high school, Sir John A. Macdonald, before eventually enrolling to and playing for Centennial College.  

Cecil remembers the team at Centennial being extremely talented; a team that included most notably John Child, who eventually represented Canada as an Olympic Beach Volleyball Player and brought home the nation’s first volleyball medal at the 1996 Olympic Games with teammate Mark Heese. Clarke was influenced by his teammates through their confidence and the comradery on and off the court, crediting them with bringing him out of his shell. Volleyball began to have a positive impact on his life in building confidence and making valuable connections, which allowed him to pursue careers inside and out of volleyball..  

Following his collegiate career, Clarke played in a Scarborough men’s league where his team eventually moved up to the A division. Cecil was part of this league as a player, then a coach. Through his commitment to the league, Cecil became the Coordinator and oversaw the format, its changes and developed a more competitive way of play through a ladder system, as opposed to the previous pool play format.    

Clarke has been an indoor and beach referee, as well as an assignor for nearly 25 years, primarily centered around the York Region. Brought into the refereeing side of the sport through a friend, Clarke naturally fell into the role and began calling match after match. One of his proudest accomplishments is when he encouraged the Catholic School Board to implement junior volleyball at the elementary level. By starting the players in grades 4, 5 and 6, Clarke believed it has led to improved play and has made the Catholic schools much more competitive against the Public schools. Advocating for the game style with more ball contact, he cites this as being crucial for a player's development with ball control as a preparation for the high school level.  

When asked about some of his most exciting matches, Cecil recalls some riveting high school matches, but a certain memory sticks out on the beach where he is a National Level referee. After an FIVB beach tournament in Toronto at Ashbridge's Bay, Clarke was introduced to referees from all over the world where he got tips on his officiating. These connections eventually led him to the opportunity to score keep in Bermuda as part of an FIVB beach tournament taking place there. This experience was one of his most memorable volleyball moments for several reasons.  For one, the referees stayed beautiful resort. Clarke also toured the island of Bermuda and was able to connect with referees from around the globe and his fellow Canadian cohorts.  

One particular memory Clarke is fond of, is the time a hurricane was approaching during this tournament. As the sea water was rising on the beach due to the intensity of the oncoming storm, the tournament had to be sped up. One of the days, he recalls, was having to stop working to fill up the sandbags to block off the courts. Looking back on the event, Clarke remembers this as being a “once in a lifetime experience.”  

As we are in Black History Month, Clarke speaks on the importance of inclusivity in volleyball with some impactful words. "It is extremely important that we tear down barriers to enter in order to elevate our black brothers and sisters; Simply, for us all to build bridges of acceptance & tolerance,” he says.  

When Clarke first began officiating in the OVA, he noticed a lack of diversity. From players to referees to coaches, the sport was primarily white. While Cecil was still comfortable in this environment due to his upbringing, he says the lack of inclusivity was frustrating. Over the years, there has been more inclusivity in the sport but still believes there is a long way to go. He believes the sport of volleyball has a lot to offer but like anything else, it is about what you put into it.   

Joely Christian - Head Coach of RMC Paladins Women's Volleyball

Photo credit: Seyran Mammadov

Joely Christian

Joely started her volleyball journey playing for  the  Scarborough Titans, which at the time was one of the few volleyball clubs in the Toronto area. A tremendously skilled  volleyball athlete in both left side and setter positions, Christian was selected to Team Ontario where she earned a silver medal at the Canada Games with her team. After a successful run at the club level, she stuck with the setting position and became the starting setter for the Canadian Junior National team at the NORCECA Championships where she captured a silver medal once more and a berth to the  1988  Junior  World  Championships.  

Following her time with the Junior National team she was asked to train with Team Canada and competed with the Senior National team, bringing her to Western Canada. Joely decided to stay out West and embarked on post-secondary life as a student-athlete for the University of Regina. With the Regina Cougars, Christian’s stellar collegiate career began as she was awarded First Team All-Canadian as a freshman where she was part of the first team to make Nationals after a silver medal finish at the Canada West Championships. The Cougars would end up taking home a fourth-place at the CIS Championships (now U SPORT). She later transferred to the University of  Manitoba in 1993-94 and helped the Bisons capture back-to-back bronze medals at the CIAU Championships.  Recognized as a major contributor to her teams, by the end of her playing career Christian had garnered four Great Plains Athletics Conference First Team All-Star honours.  

After a remarkably successful run in university, Joely decided to take a break from the sport. Like many high-level athletes, Joely struggled with some athlete identity issues. She recalls not really knowing who she was outside of the sport of  volleyball,  and  so  decided to step away from the game for a few years. After putting time into building her career and life outside of volleyball, Joely was working at a high school where she was asked to coach the boys volleyball team after some students had learned about her background in the sport. Joely has always believed in helping others and paying it forward, so she decided to take on both the boys and girls high school teams.  

Upon moving back to Ontario, Joely’s volleyball career came full circle when she was working for  the  Scarborough  Titans.  Christian had developed a firm coaching method in helping her athletes “conquer their personal Mount Everest” and to help them become the absolute best they can be. A true player’s coach, she is understanding that every athlete is different and alters her coaching style based on the player to improve their individual skill. In 2005, she guided Team Ontario to a gold medal at the 2005 Canada Summer Games, the province’s first in women’s volleyball since 1967.

Jumping ahead a few years, Joely moved into the Ontario post-secondary scene starting with Queens University. With Queens, Christian led the Gaels to their first-ever OUA Championship and Nationals berth. Joely was also named Female Coach of the Year while at the helm of the Queens women’s program. She says she feels incredibly lucky in being surrounded by many amazing coaches over her time in the sport that taught her both as a player and helped form her philosophy as a coach.  

Christian is now the Head Coach for the Royal Military College Paladins following her seven years with Queens and is the currently the sole Black volleyball Head Coach in U SPORT. Joely feels proud of the challenges that come with helping the young women at RMC to conquer the busy lives of being in the military, a student, and an athlete.  

As the only Black volleyball coach at the Canadian university level, Joely has noticed and is aware that the growth in diversity in volleyball has a ways to go. Throughout her career, these contrasts have been prevalent and has mentioned having multiple experiences with racism. Whether it was  aloud  or  mentioned  under breath, she recalls many comments thrown her way based on the color of her skin. She finds it disheartening that since her time playing club, the diversity has not really changed. Volleyball needs to generate interest in more diverse neighborhoods and follow a similar approach as basketball in Ontario, she believes. Christian is hopeful that there will be more consistent inclusivity in the sport and that there will be more of an effort made to provide access to athletes from diverse backgrounds.  Multiple pieces need to come together to  provide impactful representation for young athletes to look up to. 

Joely is also part of the Black Canadian Coaches Association where she also helps mentor up-and -coming coaches in Canada. She is also working towards her Advanced Coaching Diploma and using this down time to better herself as a coach. Joely has also found the silver lining throughout this pandemic in that it has given her more time with her family and connect more with her daughter.   

Joely Chrisitan - Head Coach RMC Paladins Women's Volleyball

Photo credit: Cpl Brandon James Liddy