Meadville Tribune

May 4, 2014

Local volleyball standout finds success in foreign league

By Lisa Byers
Meadville Tribune

— Jordan Varee had heard only a few things about Sweden before bidding adieu to the United States in September and boarding a plane for Falkenberg, where he would call home for the next eight months.

He knew to prepare for brisk temperatures and snow. And he was confident he would be warmly welcomed by its natives as he had heard the people there were “very easy to get along with.”

Varee didn’t wind up needing the winter weather gear he packed, but he did end up witnessing firsthand just how welcoming Falkenberg citizens are by playing an integral role in winning them a national championship.

Varee signed an eight-month contract to play professional volleyball for the Falkenberg Volleyball Club in August. It was the second professional gig for the Conneautville native and came two years after he suffered what he thought might be a career-ending injury.

According to Ismo Peltoarvo, the club’s chief executive officer, the Falkenberg Volleyball Club has over 300 members, most between the ages of 6 and 16, he said. The club was established in 1985 and advanced to the highest league, known as Elitserien, in 2002.

“We have a broad fan base in Falkenberg and draw big crowds to the more attractive games,” Peltoarvo said. “Our men’s team is semi-professional. Some players have a salary they can live on, while others need to work or study.”

Varee did earn a stipend for his services, which included practices Monday through Friday and games generally on Sunday, Peltoarvo said. The players practiced anywhere from 15 to 20 hours per week during the season, which began in October and ended last month.

“I have been here since Septemeber 1, so it has been a long eight-month season with very few breaks in practice or play,” Varee said. “We had our longest break of the season over Christmas and New Year’s which was only four days. So it’s a marathon and you really have to stay focused and take care of yourself off the court as well.

“To put that into perspective, our season was longer than the NCAA men’s and women’s volleyball seasons combined.”

The reward, however, is more than Varee ever could have imagined.

“In the Swedish league there are three ‘championships’ any team can win, and each has its own level of prestige,” Varee said, who did help lead Falkenberg to the Nordic Cup championship back in February, a title no other Swedish team had ever won.

The lesser of those tournaments is the League Cup. Falkenberg fell in the semifinals of that tournament. The next step up is the Grand Prix, which includes only the top four teams in the league. Falkenberg, again, fell short, losing in the finals to earn a silver medal.

Up next for Falkenberg was the most prized championship of the three, the SM-Guld or Swedish National Championship.

“The team really gained a lot of confidence winning the Nordic Cup Championship in February,” Peltoarvo said. “That is when everyone started to believe a Swedish championship was possible.”

The Linköping team entered the tournament as the favorite. It had won the Liga Cup in December 2013 and the Grand Prix in January 2014. Linköping won nine straight matches in the spring and dropped just a single set.

“Nobody really thought another team had a chance,” Peltoarvo said.

Falkenberg won the three-match series, though, all in straight sets.

“You could certainly compare it to major sporting events in the states because it’s a national championship title,” Varee said. “The win is taken very seriously by the organization, players and, of course, the fans. Our arena was sold out throughout the playoffs, which was very humbling.”

Falkenberg played its home matches at Falkhallen, an arena with close to 700 permanent seats, but the capability to hold many more. Varee said there were in upwards of about 1,000 people at some matches.

Varee played a very big role in the success of Falkenberg, head coach Patrick Aparicio said.

“Jordan was a great addition to our team this season,” he said. “I had spoken with his previous coaches before recruiting him and they described him not only as a good player, but also an athlete who would give you 100 percent attention and effort. I wasn’t disappointed.”

Peltoarvo and Aparicio both spoke fluent English. Varee didn’t have to face that challenge, as others have and commonly do when they choose to play abroad. The biggest challenge was learning another position.

“This was the first full year I played as a left side hitter or outside hitter,” Varee said. “In high school I was a setter and in college an opposite hitter, so I had to learn and make adjustments in serve receive because I have never had to perform that skill.”

Peltoarvo acknowleged Varee’s early struggles, but also acknowleged his hard work and the reward. He said Varee ended up being the squad’s best scorer during the playoffs and finished second in the voting for the season’s Best and Fairest Award which is voted on weekly by the players and coaches.

“Jordan’s contribution and development, especially in the second half of the season, was crucial to us winning the national championship as well as the Nordic Club Championships in Denmark in February,” Aparicio said.

“Playing-wise, he brought a strong serve, great reception (which was crucial to running an offense with lots of middle attack) and was a very strong attacker (especially throughout the playoffs),” he added.

Varee was named “Player of the Match” four times throughout the season.

“My mindset, in terms of volleyball, was to come (to Sweden) and gain experience playing a new position and be competitive,” Varee said. “I’m a confident person, but I never expected to be leaving with a gold medal around my neck and several new friends that I will have for the rest of my life.”

Varee is scheduled to return to the states on Wednesday. As for his return to Falkenberg, Varee said he is unsure what the future holds.

“I have some thinking to do,” he said.

If he needs any reassurance from Peltoarvo and Aparicio, they would be happy to have him back.

“Personally I believe Jordan can develop even more now that he has done a full season abroad and we hope that will be with FVBK,” Aparicio said.

“Goes without saying, we would really like to see Jordan in Falkenberg again next year,” Peltoarvo added.