Can Am Holiday Volleyball Showcase clear evidence of the rise of Canadian volleyball
U Sports and NCAA schools compete for cross-border bragging rights
The momentum behind Canadian men's volleyball has never been stronger.
The team now is hoping to make it consecutive Olympic appearances for the first time in the program's history and it will get the chance to do it at home with the final qualifier beginning on Jan. 10 in Vancouver. Canada — ranked seventh in the world — must finish first to book its ticket to Tokyo this summer.
"It's an amazing time for volleyball in Canada," said Ben Josephson, head coach of volleyball powerhouse Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and an assistant with Canada's women's program.
"You have great U Sports programs, the national team is doing the best its ever done and you have a chance to qualify for consecutive Olympic Games which would be something unheard of 15 years ago."
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A crowded Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre gym this holiday season bears that excitement.
The teams from both sides of the border provide the next crop of talent at the international level — Trinity Western's Eric Loeppky has already earned a spot on Team Canada.
Loeppky and his defending U Sports champs defeated NCAA champion Long Beach State in a five-set thriller Saturday.
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With a blistering ace on his first touch of the ball, it's easy to see why the fourth-year star set the school's record for most career aces earlier this season.
Those aren't the only attributes the Steinbach, Man., native possesses in his game.
"The really special players in every sport are the ones who consistently perform at an elite level in every phase of their sport and that's Eric," Josephson said of Loeppky, an outside hitter. "He almost never makes errors. In baseball they call that a five-tool player and that's Eric. That's what makes Eric stand out."
It's unlikely Loeppky will make an appearance for Canada in the Vancouver tournament, but it provides the U Sports standout with an opportunity to gain some international experience.
"I think what I learned in my time with the national team is how important perception and consistency is," Loeppky said. "There's just another level of volleyball that's there with a lot less mistakes and great passing.
"I think it's super important for me to work on all those things in my transition to the next level."
Toronto native Alex Ketrzynski is no stranger to the international volleyball scene, having helped Canada to its best finish at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
Now his three sons, Xander and twins Trent and Cole, represent the next crop of Canadian talent hoping to follow in their father's footsteps. The brothers enjoyed a rare opportunity to go head-to-head on Sunday.
Xander, the 2019 U Sports rookie of the year from Ryerson, and his younger brother Trent took on Cole, a freshman at UCLA, the winningest school in NCAA history.
But it was the Xander and Trent who helped Ryerson defeat UCLA in four sets. Xander was named player of the game.
"It was great because I knew where he was going to hit it," joked Xander after he and his younger brother Cole traded spikes at each other during the match.
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The cross-border matchup of brothers brought out numerous friends and family to watch.
"We had played each other before on different club teams but not in a setting like this," Cole said. "It was really cool to have our whole family here come out and watch."
Growing up under the guidance of an Olympian and through the ranks of the Canadian youth volleyball system, perhaps there is nobody better to ask than the three Ketrzynski brothers on the potential of Canada's men's volleyball program.
"I think if all the coaches keep implementing the same programs all the way though all levels of volleyball, I think Canadian volleyball will really change," said Xander, the eldest of the Ketrzynski trio.
"I mean it's already climbed miraculously in the last few years. If they keep it up it's just going to keep growing."