The Olympic dream: First Stop: Long Beach, CA

Team Canada before a match at the 2010 worlds in Italy (Photo: FIVB)

Time has come for the Canadian men’s volleyball team to fight for a berth at this year's Olympics. Eight teams will vie for a spot in London Games at the Norceca Olympic qualification tournament starting Monday May 7th in Long Beach, California.  The teams competing are: Canada, USA, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago, Costa Rica, and Dominican Republic. Team Canada is in pool B with the Cubans, Ricans, and Dominicans. Last time Canada's men’s volleyball team participated at the Games was in Barcelona 1992, placing 10th.

“USA and Cuba are the obvious favorites for this qualifier, but Puerto Rico and Mexico will also have their best players. We are prepared and will approach each match with great care. This is a very important tournament for us since it will be our only chance to reach the Olympic dream” head coach Glenn Hoag said. Only the winner in Long Beach qualifies for the London Olympics.

The players had arrived at the training centre in Gatineau at different times after finishing their respective club seasons in various countries, mainly in Europe. Hoag himself arrived in Gatineau last Sunday, after the end of his season in Turkey where he coaches Arkas Izmir. “We evaluated all the players to see how their health was. We did some good training and the team is ready” Hoag told us.

While the main contenders like Cuba and USA have been training for a little longer and played a few friendly matches against the Argentineans (on their way for the South American qualifier), the Canadians have only been training in Gatineau. This is not a problem according to the coach. “Our team is young and these young players make progress every year. Here in training we can see the level of maturity that some of our players have gained”.

An example of the improvement can be seen with the middle players. Besides veteran Steve Brinkman, over 200 matches with Team Canada, the team relies on young players such as Justin Duff and Adam Kaminski. While Duff was playing under the supervision of Hoag in Turkey, Kaminski was playing in the Polish league, one of the strongest in Europe. The coach says they gained valuable experience last season.

The first match will be against the Dominicans, on Monday followed by the Ricans on Tuesday. The real challenge begins on Wednesday when Canada faces Cuba. Cuba is the runner-up at the last world championships in 2010, and also at the World Grand Champions Cup in 2009.  They are also the reigning Norceca champions after beating USA last September. The Cubans have two main players, opposite hitter Fernando Hernandez and outside hitter Wilfredo Leon, a 18-year-old phenomenon that has been playing in the Cuban adult team since he was 14. Canada and Cuba clashed at the semis in Norceca tournament, when the Canadians gave them a run for their money, losing only in the tie-breaking fifth set.

“Their serve was the decisive factor in that match”, setter Dustin Schneider remembers. Check out some highlights of that semifinal.

Before the 2010 worlds, Canada had played three friendly matches in East Canada against the Cubans, winning one of them. “Cuba is not a difficult team to plan to play against, their game is pretty simple, based on their physical abilities, you know, strength and that amazing vertical. Anyway, they are pretty effective”, says Schneider.

While Cubans are well-known by the Canadians, the situation is different when it comes to the Americans.  USA are the reigning Olympic champions and will have the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd. “I've never played the main American team, their A squad” affirms Dustin Schneider. Outside hitter Fred Winters recalls playing USA as a tough task.

“They have an all-around game”, he tells. Alongside libero Dan Lewis and middle player Steve Brinkman, Winters is one of the team’s veterans, having started back in 2003. He is not only one of the main offensive weapons, but also a key player for Hoag’s plans of having a strong passing line. “We are getting more consistent, maybe our serve needs to get better, but our attack, block, defense, and pass are quite good” Winters remarks.

If Canada finishes first on their pool, they will go straight to the semis, waiting for the winner of the match involving the second of pool A and third of their group. This way, they would play USA only in an eventual final. If they place second in pool B, they will have to play a quarterfinal match against the third team from the other group, with a big chance of a new meeting with the Cubans in the semifinal.

The games will be broadcast by Norceca and USA Volleyball. Check out their websites:

www.norceca.org

www.usavolleyball.org

Team Canada Schedule

  • May 7: Canada vs Dominican Republic, 4 p.m. (EDT)
  • May 8: Canada vs Puerto Rico, 9 p.m. (EDT)
  • May 9: Canada vs Cuba, 9 p.m. (EDT)
  • May 10: Quarterfinals
  • May 11: Semifinals
  • May 12: Finals

Team Canada Roster

Left sides: Nicholas Cundy, Toontje Van Lankvelt, Fred Winters and Gord Perrin

Middle blockers: Justin Duff, Steve Brinkman and Adam Kaminski

Right sides: Dallas Soonias and Gavin Schmitt

Setters: Josh Howatson and Dustin Schneider

Libero: Dan Lewis

Women’s team

Canada women’s team placed fourth in the Norceca Olympic qualifier held in Tijuana, Mexico saying goodbye to the Olympic dream at least until Rio 2016. The girls lost in five sets to the Ricans in the third place match on Saturday. Dominican Republic beat Cuba 3-1 in the final and got a ticket to London. Cuba will have another chance in the intercontinental qualifier, to be held later this month in Japan. The Americans had previously secured a spot to the Olympic Games finishing second at the 2011 World Cup.