May 20, 2014 5:55 am

Canada earns berth in volleyball worlds

Gavin Schmitt of Canada attacks against a block from Finland's Jukka Lehtonen and Mikko Oivanen during volleyball action at the Hakametsa Ice Hockey Arena in Tampere, Finland in this undated handout photo.

Volleyball Canada handout / The Canadian Press

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Canada’s men’s volleyball team breezed through its world championship qualifying tournament with such ease, qualifying seemed like a mere formality.

But while Canada powered past overmatched Costa Rica on Monday and into the world championships, it was the team’s first tournament together since the players returned home from their respective pro seasons spent abroad.

It was a chance, said coach Glenn Hoag, to gauge where the team is before the much tougher road that lies ahead.

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“We just wanted to focus on finishing this properly and qualifying for worlds, and we did that,” Hoag said. “We rotated the players, got them all a chance to play in this big gym, which is what we’re going to be facing in big tournaments.

“We have a lot of things to work on obviously, because the guys just regrouped. Our next opponent (Finland) will be next harder.”

Dallas Soonias of Red Deer, Alta., and Gord Perrin of Creston, B.C., scored 13 points each as Canada defeated Costa Rica in straight sets, 25-14, 25-15, 25-16, in the final at the Hershey Centre.

The victory earned Canada a spot in the world championships, Aug 30 to Sept. 21 in Poland.

The Canadian women followed it up with a 25-16, 25-19, 25-17 victory over Mexico in clinch a spot in the women’s world tournament.

“We are so young, and we are hardly ever in game situations like today where we have to win a final to get in a the next round, so it was a very good performance,” said Canadian women’s coach Arnd Ludwig. “Going to the worlds is a very important step. We are young, we want to get better, we want to follow the (Canadian) guys, they are a step ahead of us.

“This is a good success, it keeps us motivated, gives us more good games for the year, and it will make us a lot better and give us the experience we need to compete on the high level.”

Kyla Richey of Roberts Creek, B.C., led the way with 14 points, while Tabitha Love of Dauphin, Man., had 10.

Both the men and women’s teams had only gathered at their training bases — Ottawa for the men, Winnipeg for the women — over the past couple of weeks, arriving one or two at a time from their pro clubs overseas.

“It’s always a challenge, because for eight months, we’re not playing on the same teams, we’re not playing in the same cities,” said Dan Lewis, a libero from Oakville, Ont., who plays professionally in Poland.

“And then you come back and it’s a little bit sloppy and everybody is a little bit frustrated, and as the weeks progress, you start to evolve back to where we were.”

It’s difficult, Lewis and Soonias said, to gauge where they’re truly at against the three weaker opponents they faced in qualifying.

Fred Winters of Victoria added 12 points and six digs, while Lewis also had six digs for the 11th-ranked Canadians in a game that looked like men against boys. The Canadians dominated No. 62 Costa Rica with their size, speed and superior organized play. The Canadians have six players over six foot five on their roster. The Costa Ricans have none.

“I feel like we have a lot to work on,” said Soonias, who played professionally this season in China and Qatar. “I’m sure our coach thinks we have a ton to work on. It is tough to play your best. You train for the top teams in the world, so sometimes it’s tough to play a slightly weaker team.

“Still, we’re professionals, we try to keep our level high, sometimes it doesn’t always happen.”

He added, it’s always great when the Canadian team players gather after their seasons spent abroad.

“When you play pro, it’s your job,” Soonias said. “Here, we’re playing for a reason, we’re here for the same thing. It’s wonderful to hang out with these guys. That’s why I keep doing it.”

Canada didn’t give up a set in NORCECA’s third-round qualifying tournament (Pool Q), going undefeated through the round robin, with wins over Costa Rica, Panama, and Trinidad & Tobago.

The Canadians have a busy couple of months — and several much tougher opponents — ahead of them before worlds. They have six upcoming World League games — two against Finland, May 31 and June 1 in Calgary, two versus Belgium, June 13 and 14 in Vancouver, and a pair against Australia, June 20 and 21 in Edmonton.

The Canadian men are on the rise, finishing fifth in the prestigious 18-country World League last year to climb to No. 11 in the world rankings. That strong result came a year after they were just one win away from qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

They finished 19th at the last world championships in 2010.

The 20th-ranked Canadian women will play in their world championships, Sept. 23 to Oct. 12 in Italy. They also went undefeated through the preliminary round, beating Jamaica, Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They relinquished one set in the round robin, to 28th-ranked Mexico.

“So happy,” Richey said. “We put in so much effort, and the coming weeks before this tournament, we didn’t have so much time together, we worked so hard in the last two and a half weeks we had together. So it’s so nice that it’s over and we have our ticket to Italy.”

Canada’s women finished 21st in the 2010 world championships.

Richey said the women’s team, despite being young, is on the rise as well.

“Lots of the girls have just graduated from university so there were a lot of first-time girls playing professionally and I think that raised our level a little bit,” she said. “So now we’re back home and our level was raised, so we could come back and really go for it in this tournament, and qualify.”

The volleyball qualifying tournament was one of several official test events held over the weekend for the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

Trinidad & Tobago won the men’s bronze over Panama in four sets (19-25, 28-26, 20-25, 19-25).

Jamaica defeated the US Virgin Islands (25-13, 25-10, 25-11) to claim the women’s bronze.

© The Canadian Press, 2014

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