VANCOUVER — Speak to Katarina Pantovic for any amount of time, and you very suddenly realize that the senior volleyball whiz from Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School has taken not a single moment along the journey of her athletic career for granted.
“I have the perfect example where I can say that mental toughness really came into play for me,” begins the 6-foot outside hitter, whose equally-perfect blend of grit, skill and poise made her the unanimous choice as 2019-20 B.C. Girls High School Volleyball Player of the Year in Varsity Letters’ 11th annual coaches poll.
“It was at the NORCECA semifinals back in 2018 against Cuba,” continues Pantovic, who will begin collegiate life this fall in Pac 12 in Berkeley as a member of the California Golden Bears. “It was in the match to decide who goes to the World Championships. It’s the fifth set. We (Canada) are down 14-11 and Cuba’s best server is serving on the other side. We had to pull off the comeback. We managed to side out, then we went on a run to win 16-14.
“And,” she adds, “it all happened on my 16th birthday.”
The victory, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, carried Pantovic and the rest of the Canadian team to this past summer’s FIVB Girls Under-18 World Championships in Egypt.
And when she returned from the other side of the world to her familiar halls and classrooms at Byng for her senior year of high school, there was a momentum within her that seemed to flow through each and every one of her Grey Ghosts’ teammates.
As November gave way to December, Pantovic first signed her National Letter of Intent to play at Cal, then led Lord Byng to the Final Four at the B.C. Senior Girls Quad-A championship tournament at the Langley Events Centre.
“All of this has taught me, that no matter what, you just keep working hard,” she says.
Clearly, that’s something which resonated with all five of our voters — the head coaches at Simon Fraser, UBC, UBC Okanagan, Trinity Western and Thompson Rivers — when it came to Pantovic, who got the No. 1 nod from the entire quintet.
“I think Kat’s work ethic is one thing that sets her apart,” says Simon Fraser head coach Gina Schmidt of Pantovic, who on Wednesday was named to Canada’s Under-20 team, the next step in her climb up the national team ladder. “She is not the tallest player, but she makes up for this with her work ethic and the diligence she puts into her training and physical preparation. She is a constant role model for the athletes around her.”
Adds her high school coach at Byng, Kimberley Chong-ping: “Even though Kat plays at such a high level with her national team, even though she is going to Cal, and even though she has players on her high school team who are not of the same calibre as her, she has never felt any part of this team beneath her. All she has been is super-encouraging to everyone.”
Outside hitters claimed the first seven spots in our poll, with Kelowna’s Madelyn Hettinga in second, Cranbrook-Mt. Baker’s Elle Ostreich in third, and Lauren Attieh from Surrey’s Pacific Academy rounding out the top four.
And when you listen to what all the experts says about her game, it’s clear that although she has been gifted by the game’s gods with so many tools for success, she has never taken them for granted.
Instead, all she has done is honour them through her hard work.
“Kat is a tremendously dynamic athlete,” says UBC head coach Doug Reimer, a Wooden-esque figure in the Canadian university women’s game who knows a player when he sees one. “She has incredible power and core strength and that is evidenced on court with attacking speed and velocity. Kat is also a great beach player and her all round ball control skills are evident both on the sand and the hardwood courts.”
Adds Thompson Rivers head coach Chad Grimm: “Kat is dynamic in her movements and aggressive to the ball both offensively and defensively. Her ability to get her feet to the ball makes her a dangerous player in all situations and allows her to be a point-scoring threat at all times.”
And UBC Okanagan head coach Steve Manuel is succinct in summing up Pantovic’s prodigious toolbox of talent.
“Katarina has the physical ability to control a match, regardless of what type of defense the opposing team puts up,” he says. “She has the ability to hit over, around or through the block and beat the defenders. She is just an extremely gifted athlete, great jumper and has a big arm as an attacker. Definitely a standout, the type of athlete that is at another level and only comes around every so often.”
Speaking of which, as a talented athlete, Pantovic has so often played ‘up’ on teams with older and more experienced athletes.
Ask her about that and she will tell you that she has watched and learned with purpose any time she has been around those kinds of players.
“I can remember when I played for the Team B.C. Under-18s when I was in Grade 9 and I was an alternate, and Kiera Van Ryk was on that team,” begins Pantovic, referencing the former Surrey Christian/UBC superstar and current Canadian senior national team standout who this past summer signed a professional contract to play at the top tier of the game in Italy. “Everything about her inspired me. The skill level. The way she reacted to things on the court. I was star-struck.”
Seems a pretty safe bet that along her travels, Katarina Pantovic is going to have the same kind of impact on a new group of young players looking for a mentor to model her best traits of hard-work, confidence and humility.
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