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Indoor: Lady Maples Gear Up for NORCECA Championships

If there's two things to be said about the Canadian national women’s team season, is that it’s been interesting and busy - and both of those things should continue this week as the 2019 NORCECA Championships kicks off today in Puerto Rico.

The Lady Maples started the year on all-time high - a seven-game win streak through the NORCECA and FIVB Challenger Cups to qualify for the 2020 Volleyball Nations League for the first time. Unfortunately, that win came at the expense of outside hitter Autumn Bailey, who suffered a second ACL tear in her knee late in the 2nd-set of the FIVB Challenger Cup against the Czech Republic.

A Pan Am Cup to forget followed that triumph, and an Olympic Qualifier in Russia that many would agree could have gone better.

While this NORCECA Championships technically has no meaning - there’s no Olympic Qualification implications this week; the next few days should tell us a lot about where this team is headed in their last event together before the final Olympic Qualification round in January against these same teams.

In Pool A along with Cuba, Costa Rica, and the hosts Puerto Rico - Team Canada will be gunning for the top spot in order to secure the semi-final berth and avoid a quarterfinal match up. A third-place finish in the pool will most likely mean a match-up with the USA or the Dominican Republic, while a second will be either Mexico or Trinidad & Tobago. Sure the later scenario is a much easier path - but a day off recovering would be much better; both physically and mentally for this team.

This will probably come down to their Thursday night match against the hosts in front of their home crowd. The Lady Maples are 1-1 against Puerto Rico this year; a 3-0 win in Chateauguay at the Challenger Cup, and a 3-1 loss in the Pan Am Cup quarterfinals in Peru.

This won’t be an easy task in front of the Puerto Rican fans who have a reputation of being wild; not to mention Team Canada will be missing some key personnel. Most notable from the absentees will be Head Coach Tom Black who is currently in season with his University of Georgia Bulldogs. The American has come in and given new life to this team and program this year, and is able to handle his and his teams emotions well. Luckily, stepping in will be Assistant Coach Ben Josephson - arguably the best coach Canada has.

On the roster side of things, Autumn Bailey has had a successful surgery and is already walking on her rehab journey, but is still far away from getting on the court. Another missing outsides are rookie from Toronto Andrea Mitrovic, who is in season with Arizona State, and Sarah Chase. The team will be bolstered by the return of Marie-Alex Belanger, who sprained her ankle against Korea at the Olympic Qualifier in August, and joining the team are middle blocker Alicia Ogoms from Winnipeg, while Calgary’s Hillary Howe will slot in the outside.

While the personnel on the sidelines might be different - the starting seven should be pretty much the same. Alexa Gray and Kiera van Ryk will continue to spread out the offence pin-to-pin, Emily Maglio the active weapon down the middle with Jen Cross building walls opposite of her. Brie O’Reilly and Danielle Smith will most likely continue to split time at setter, although expect the rookie O’Reilly to be given more opportunities to grow as she’s obviously the future of the team; and Jessie Niles should continue her stellar play wearing the libero’s jersey.

The big question will be the P2 slot - a position they’ve struggled to fill since the injury to Bailey. One option is to slot Captain Kyla Richey into the lineup to solidify the serve receive and bring some leadership to the court - or we could see Van Ryk being moved to the left in order to place Marie-Alex Belanger or Shainah Joseph on the right.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter who’s on the court (within reason, of course). This team has shown they can compete with the best, and the only thing standing in their way of the next breakthrough is their collective mentality. If they are able to tie everything together this week - the outlook towards January’s Olympic Qualifiers should be much, much brighter.

You can watch the Lady Maples kick off their tournament today against Cuba at 2pm ET, and you can stream that on internet.tv - or head over to our tournament page for all of this and more.