Canadian men's volleyball team wins opener at Olympic qualifier
Team Canada has chance at Olympic berth for 1st time since 1992
If the Canadian men's volleyball squad was feeling nervous as it embarks on its quest to end a 24-year absence from Olympic competition, it certainly wasn't showing anything on Friday night.
Canada is off and running at the 2016 NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament as they picked up an emphatic straight sets win over Mexico at the Saville Community Sports Centre in Edmonton.
The 10th-ranked Canadians — the top-ranked team in the competition — were only really troubled in a close second set but otherwise looked confident in overcoming 24th-ranked Mexico 25-19, 25-23 and 25-16.
Team Canada's next match comes on Saturday against Puerto Rico, which you can watch live on CBCSports.ca and CBC TV starting at 3:30 p.m. ET.
"I think the guys were a little over excited as the guys made some unforced errors that they don't usually make," said head coach Glenn Hoag. "They don't want to disappoint so I think we're going to settle down and the crowd is going to help us a lot and give us the energy we need."
Easily bigger and stronger than their Mexican opposition, Canada dominated the early exchanges at the net, staking an early advantage in the first set with a combination of overpowering swings on offence and putting up a massive defensive wall in registering some early blocks.
Canada picked up the first three points of the first set, never allowing Mexico to close the gap and eventually took the set when Mexico's Ivan Marquez put a serve into the net.
"We started nervous and I didn't like that but a little bit of adversity is good the beginning," said outside spiker Gord Perrin. "We're going to need to win big points at the end of sets if we want to qualify."
Perrin, from Creston, B.C., led the way offensively for Canada with 15 points, including 12 off spikes and two service aces, while Dallas Soonias played his first game almost a year to the day since getting knee cartilage reconstruction surgery and added nine points — eight from spikes.
"It was like a Rocky montage in my mind thinking about the last time I played and I couldn't walk upstairs after, getting surgery, not being able to move in a boot on my leg after," said Soonias, who needed a few moments to compose himself after an emotional evening.
"It's just so nice to play again," the Red Deer, Alta. native said. "I didn't realize it would feel like that so it was something special. And my parents are here so it was really nice."
Soonias' cheering was only missing his fiancee, Jaimie Thibeault, who is a member of the Canadian women's national squad which is also currently in the midst of Olympic qualifying.
Second set scare
The second set was a different story as Mexico took a small advantage early before the teams traded leads and Canada looked to be a little frustrated as some calls didn't go its way.
At one point, Canada was issued a red card, which in volleyball means Mexico was given a point as the referee wasn't pleased with how Canada reacted to a call against them.
But Canada found its composure and pulled away late, taking the second set when Perrin hammered down a spike from the back row that Mexico couldn't handle with its reception going out of bounds.
Canada is looking for an Olympic berth in men's volleyball for the first time since 1992.
The winner of this round-robin tournament – which also includes Puerto Rico and Cuba – qualifies for Rio while the second and third placed teams have a second chance in a tournament later this year.
Taking the match so quickly in three sets is vital for Canada as it picked up a maximum five points for the victory. Had it dropped a set, as it very nearly did in the second, it wouldn't have achieved full points and in a round-robin competition such as this, that could have proved costly in the end.
"Every set is worth a point for the final berth and we were close to dropping a set but we won all three," said Perrin. "We started big. We put a little doubt in their attackers. They're small guys so if you can block them early then they get a little nervous attacking."
With files from CBC Sports