The Final Battle

Dallas Soonias goes for a dig. He subbed Gavin Schmitt from the third set and helped Canada to beat Puerto Rico (Photo: Norceca)

Only one match separates Canada men’s volleyball team from the London Olympics. Canada advanced to the final of NORCECA Olympic qualifier with a victory over Puerto Rico in a thrilling five-setter (22-25, 25-23, 19-25, 25-23, 15-11). Canada takes on USA in the final this Saturday at 11:00 p.m. EST. After easily beating Puerto Rico in the last five meetings since August (losing only one set in the first of those matches) maybe Team Canada didn’t expect such a tough game against the Ricans last night in Long Beach, California. Three days before in pool play the Canucks had dispatched Puerto Rico in straight sets little over an hour. When opposite hitter Dallas Soonias roofed Ezequiel Cruz closing the first semifinal after two and a half hours, the Canadian volleyball fans must have felt relieved. Just one more step. This time against the Americans, the reigning Olympic champions.

Soonias and the setter Dustin Schneider came off the bench to replace Gavin Schmitt and Josh Howatson respectively during the third set and their contribution was decisive alongside a consistent performance by left side Fred Winters, the main scorer for Canada with 19 points (18 kills and one block). Justin Duff, Toon van Lankvelt and Schmitt scored 13 points each while Soonias helped with 12. Veteran Rican left side Juan Figueroa had a great match and was the top scorer with impressive 30 points (27 kills, two blocks and one ace), followed by opposite Cruz with 20 points (17 kills and three blocks). Puerto Rico led in attacks scoring 71 times against 64 by Canada. However the Canadians blocked better (despite an inconsistent serve) reaching the mark of 15 blocks (Duff, Lankvelt and the short Schneider contributed with three blocks each), while the Ricans blocked eight times. Canada scored only two aces, while Puerto Rico had six.

Canada’s line-up was Lankvelt and Winters (left sides), Steve Brinkman and Justin Duff (middles), Josh Howatson (setter), Gavin Schmitt (opposite), and Dan Lewis (libero). Nicholas Cundy subbed in Brinkman in the end of first set just to serve. Soonias and Schneider got on the court later in the third set till the end. Middle blocker Adam Kaminski replaced Brinkman in the third and fourth sets. Later in the tie-break Brinkman returned. Left side Gord Perrin couldn’t play because he was recovering from back spasms.

The second semifinal was the host USA versus Cuba. The Americans made a comeback to win 3-1 (21-25, 25-18, 25-17, 25-16). It was a great night for left side Matthew Anderson, top scorer with 24 points (17 kills, three blocks and four aces).

Team Canada hasn’t played USA main squad in this Olympic cycle. Not a problem, says Canada’s head coach Glenn Hoag. “I think it will be about us. USA is an experienced team and they are at home. We will have to play our best volleyball to win”, remarks Hoag. Veteran Fred Winters recalls the Americans play an all-around game, being harder to plan against USA than Cuba, for example. “Anyway, the gap between us is smaller now”, says Winters.