Canada's Men's National team has opened the 2016 FIVB World Olympic Qualification tournament by earning a point, falling to World No. 2 Poland 3-2 (25-18, 17-25, 25-21, 18-25, 15-9) this morning in Tokyo.
Gord Perrin (14 K, 3 A, 1 B) and Gavin Schmitt (12 K, 2 A, 3 B) were back as Canada's dynamic-duo with 18 and 17 points respectively while Bartosz Kurek led the match with 21 points, aided by Mateusz Mika with 18.
As expected from an opening game, both teams took some time to find their footing in the first set. Poland's aggressive approach saw them commit a handful of errors right out of the gate - while Canada's offence sputtered early - scoring only 5 points in the opening set.
The second saw Canada come alive in explosive fashion; a 8-1 run right out of the gate on the backs of serving runs from TJ Sanders and Gord Perrin, and the Maple Volleys ran with it from there. The offence came alive in the second, with Gord on the left and Gavin on the right starting to gain confidence, Poland only made it worse by continuing to make aggressive errors, and Canada evened things up.
Both teams settled into things in the third. As Poland got back to their high-powered offence, Canada started exercising their block-defence game. Dan Jansen Van Doorn, who came off the bench at the start of the second, made an immediate impact at the net. The ability to physical compete with one of the biggest teams in the world allowed the defence make some key plays - led by Blair Bann with his five digs. Canada finished with 11 blocks and 22 digs on the match.
While Canada was able to force the fifth to secure a point, Poland came out looking like the World No. 2 and opened the fifth set with a 11-3 run. The Canucks made things a little more interesting by pushing it to 11-6, but Poland closed out the match 15-9.
The #WOQT has one of the most gruelling schedules of any event with seven matches in 9 days - and Team Canada will have to turn around right away to take on Iran tonight at 9:10 p.m. ET. The Iranians are the top ranked AVC-representative, and took care of Australia 3-0 last night in the tournament opener.
Last night's match marked the first time since the 2015 World Cup that Gavin Schmitt has played in a match - and he looked solid.
It took a while for things to get going, with only one kill in the first, where he seemed to be feeling things out. He wasn't swinging away with the reckless abandon that we've sometimes seen from the star opposite - but instead with some controlled swings that were forcing Poland to play defence.
As the second set progressed into the rest of the game, the dozen of Canadians watching could see that even if Gavin wasn't 100% physically ready - his intense focus was maybe stronger than ever. While not dominating the offence, he was scary efficient hitting a .632 and managed to come up with big points at big times on either side of the ball.
Most impressive of the performance might be his three blocks. Not known as a shut down blocker - the Saskatoon native recorded only six blocks during the 2015 World Cup. Adding a couple of aces and even a couple digs in there too; Gavin's well-rounded performance was key to Canada stealing a point.
A lot has to be said on how TJ Sanders managed the opposite in his first game back. He gave him the opportunity to find his game in the first and second by continuing to feed him even though Gavin wasn't scoring. Canada's setters are guilty of getting Gavin-happy whenever he gets rolling - but TJ stayed away from that game last night, giving him the least sets of the outsides yet continuing to put him into favourable positions to score.
It's too early to really tell if Gavin is back and his body will be ready to handle the toll of the next few days. Maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was the stage, or maybe it was the fact he'll be playing against many of these guys in the fall - but if last night's performance is any indication, Canadian volleyball fans could have reasons to celebrate.