Granite City hosts first ever AYF-YOARF National Athletic Tournament

GRANITE CITY, IL – The Armenian Youth Federation – Youth Organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (AYF-YOARF) Eastern Region’s Granite City “Antranig” Chapter hosted the 2024 National Athletic Tournament (NAT) this past Presidents’ Day weekend. The event marked the first regional athletic event hosted by Granite City in the history of the organization. 

The local Granite City Steering Committee worked tirelessly over the past year to plan an exciting and successful weekend. The committee was composed of AYF members, alumni and Granite City community members who helped organize the entirety of the event, from the hotel to the athletics, entertainment, venues and more.

The weekend came with a surprise – several inches of snow in the greater St. Louis area. However, not even snowfall could contain the AYF members’ excitement to get the weekend started. The weekend kicked off with a welcome social at Wasabi Sushi Bar. Basketball and volleyball games would start at 11 a.m. the next morning.

Over 100 AYF Seniors signed up to compete in the indoor basketball and co-ed volleyball tournaments held at the beautiful athletic complex at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School. In total there were six men’s basketball teams, three women’s basketball teams and eight co-ed volleyball teams.

Providence vs. Chicago

As the double-elimination basketball tournament got underway on Saturday, the Detroit men’s team and New Jersey women’s team received first-round byes as defending champions. The Greater Boston men’s team also received a first-round bye as a 2023 finalist. 

On the men’s side, the first-round matchups proved to be extremely exciting, with Chicago narrowly beating Providence in overtime 52-49, securing their first NAT men’s basketball win in years, led by the Banklian brothers Alek and Aren. Philadelphia took care of a gritty mixed men’s team 56-49. On the women’s side, Detroit handily beat the mixed girls team by a score of 27-16. 

In the second round games, attendees saw last year’s finalists take the court for the first time. As expected, the dominant Greater Boston and Detroit teams easily took care of Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively, setting up a semi-final rematch of last year’s championship matchup. The defending champions, the New Jersey women, took the floor against Detroit and asserted their dominance with a 31-22 victory, locking in their spot in the championship.

Moving on to the losers bracket portion of Saturday, five-man Philadelphia beat Providence 54-36, and the mixed team defeated the resilient Chicago team, who fought back after being down throughout most of the game. Philadelphia capped off Saturday’s slate of games with their fourth game of the day and a win over the mixed men’s team 60-44. In the women’s losers bracket, Detroit and the mixed team fought for a chance to reach the final. In a competitive game, the experienced Detroit team ultimately won 25-15, setting up a rematch with New Jersey in the championship on Sunday. 

Mixed volleyball team (Granite City and New York)

The co-ed volleyball tournament also took place throughout the day Saturday, sprinkled in between the scheduled basketball games. Two-time defending champions Providence hoped to make it a three-peat in 2024. After the first-round games ended, the semi-finals on Sunday would consist of Providence versus Chicago A and Detroit versus Greater Boston. 

As attendees returned to the hotel to get some well-deserved rest, Granite City community members worked hard to set up the dance at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church community center. Members were excited to see a fan-favorite: The Yerakouyn Band. As the out-of-town AYF attendees arrived, they rushed to the dance floor alongside the Granite City community members to dance traditional Armenian dances, from the tamzara to the pampouri and more. 

Sunday’s schedule of events began with the highly-anticipated men’s basketball winners bracket semi-finals matchup between Detroit and Greater Boston. Although a close contest throughout, crucial Detroit guard Mher Tcholakian fouled out with many minutes left to play, allowing the Greater Boston “Nejdehs” to pull away 58-49 with the victory and cement their spot in the finals. This led to a losers bracket semi-final matchup between Detroit and Philadelphia, who played their fifth game in just two days. Although short-staffed, the Philadelphia “Sebouhs” kept it a close game but eventually lost to Detroit by a score of 44-34. The basketball finals consisted of Detroit versus Greater Boston on the men’s side, and Detroit versus New Jersey on the women’s side.

In the volleyball tournament, Providence defeated Chicago (2-0) after a miraculous first set comeback. Chicago took a commanding 22-16 lead; however, Providence rallied back on Harry Kojoian’s service and stole the first set 28-26. Greater Boston defeated Detroit (2-0), leaving defending champions Providence and Greater Boston to meet in the finals, a matchup between traditional rivals.

Providence Volleyball Team

As the volleyball championship kicked off, Providence got off to an early lead in the first set and did not look back. The “Varantians” took care of business and defeated Greater Boston by a score of 2-0, earning their third consecutive NAT volleyball championship.

Returning to the basketball courts, the women’s championship tipped off between Detroit and New Jersey. The game was a significant one, with longtime Detroit star player and NAT veteran Knar Topouzian lacing up for her last game. 

The women’s basketball championship was a tremendous display of athleticism, fine-tuned dribbling skills and lights-out shooting. The game was extremely tight from start to finish, with neither team able to build a safe lead to run away with the game. As the game approached its last few minutes, the New Jersey “Arsen” ladies were able to take the lead with a solid five-point cushion and did not let it slip. They dominated the boards and created many second-chance points. As the scoreboard showed 0:00, New Jersey was crowned the 2024 women’s NAT champion by a score of 31-26. Tournament MVP was awarded to Mia Setrakian, who scored 19 points in the championship to lead her chapter to a second consecutive victory. 

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“I had a great time playing basketball with New Jersey and the other teams we played against. Everyone was so supportive, and it was great to reunite with everyone for the weekend after being at college for so long. It was a truly memorable weekend!” said Setrakian.

Recent alumna and newly onboarded coach Theresa Jelalian stated, “Throughout my NATs playing career, the one thing I hoped to get out of the girls was that everyone was having fun.” She went on, “Being on the sideline this year, I hoped to bring that same energy, only in a different role. Getting to coach these girls was really awesome, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Although there are winners and losers at every NAT, the true purpose of the weekend is to bring together our organization’s members to enjoy each other’s presence in a competitive and respectful environment. Many remember the displays of sportsmanship and camaraderie throughout their AYF careers. As the buzzer sounded at the end of the women’s championship game, a thunderous round of applause was given for Knar Topouzian, while her teammates shouted chants of “We love Knar!” Moments like these continue to make AYF-YOARF events special and memorable for its membership and alumni for years to come. 

When asked her thoughts on competing at her last NAT, Topouzian said, “Although I realized my body is physically ready to age out of the sport, I wish I could keep playing only to continue having great experiences on and off the court with my fellow DKT members and all my AYF peers.” She continued, “This was one of my favorite NATs I’ve ever attended. I feel so grateful to have such supportive friends and such a strong and loving chapter.” 

A livestream of the women’s championship can be found on the AYF Eastern Region Facebook page.

The last event of the tournament was the men’s basketball championship between defending champions Detroit and Greater Boston, a rematch from the 2023 NAT final. The game was a physical one, with both teams reaching the foul bonus in the first half. The first half concluded with Detroit leading 29-26. Veteran player Daron Hamparian of Greater Boston had a scorching first half, scoring 15 of Greater Boston’s 26 team points. 

Sasoun Tcholakian attempts a free throw

As the second half progressed, the game continued to stay too close for comfort for either team. Mher Tcholakian, who had fouled out in the earlier Greater Boston matchup, found himself in trouble once again with four fouls. However, he was able to adjust and play hard defense without registering a fifth foul. 

The second half was dominated by two sets of brothers: the Tcholakians of Detroit and Charchaflians of Greater Boston. Twins Mher (13 second-half points) and Sasoun (11 second-half points) Tcholakian scored all but two of Detroit’s 26 second-half points. Joey (9 second-half points) and Sam (9 second-half points) Charchaflian scored all but four of Greater Boston’s 22 second-half points. 

As the final whistle blew, Detroit ultimately avenged its semi-final loss and beat Greater Boston 55-48. Tournament MVP was awarded to Mher Tcholakian, who delivered a commanding performance of 21 points and nine rebounds.

A livestream of the men’s championship can be found on the AYF Eastern Region Facebook page.

When asked about his thoughts on the weekend, Tcholakian said, “First, I want to shout out the Granite City’s chapter for setting up an amazing NATs! They allowed us AYFers to come together and build memories that will last a lifetime.” 

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Tcholakian went on to share what it means to him to be a Detroit AYF member. “Being able to be part of the AYF and DKT gives me the privilege to be part of something bigger than myself! Accomplishing the tall task of winning couldn’t have been done without my teammates and our emphatic DKT chapter that shows nothing but support for each other.” 

Following the loss, Greater Boston “Nejdeh” Joey Charchaflian stated, “It was a heartbreaking loss, but I’m proud of our boys for the fight we put up. No excuses – we’ve already started getting ready for next year, and the ‘Nejdehs’ will definitely produce results at the 2025 NAT in Providence.”

Following Sunday’s semi-final and championship games, members returned to the hotel to prepare for the final night’s dance and award ceremony. Entertainment was provided by DJ M-Kay of Detroit and Yerakouyn Band.

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Victors and defeated alike gathered to dance and celebrate each other’s hard efforts and personal and team achievements. The Central Athletic Council took the opportunity to award the basketball and volleyball team trophies, as well as the individual MVP awards.

The AYF-YOARF Central Executive would like to extend its gratitude to the Granite City “Antranig” Chapter, its alumni and the greater Granite City community members for their support in organizing an extremely fruitful and historic event. 

Giselle Krikorian, Granite City AYF and NAT Steering Committee member, reflected on the weekend. “Hosting NATs was a great way to connect our community to the greater AYF region, as our chapter has not hosted a major event like this for many decades.” She went on, “I am so happy that our members were able to see their fellow ungers in our hometown, since our chapter can feel isolated at times due to distance. I am proud of our community for planning and running such an amazing event, as it demonstrates that our chapter is alive and thriving!”

The AYF-YOARF is looking forward to the 2024 AYF Olympics in Detroit, Michigan and another weekend of camaraderie, competition and celebration. 

On behalf of the Central Executive and the 2024 Granite City NAT Committee, we would like to thank all those who attended and extend our congratulations to all tournament champions and MVPs!

Founded in 1933, The Armenian Youth Federation is an international, non-profit, youth organization of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). The AYF-YOARF Eastern United States stands on five pillars that guide its central activities and initiatives: Educational, Hai Tahd, Social, Athletic and Cultural. The AYF also promotes a fraternal attitude of respect for ideas and individuals amongst its membership. Unity and cooperation are essential traits that allow members of the organization to work together to realize the AYF’s objectives.

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