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Canada's men's volleyball team gunning for top-six finish at world championships

August 31, 2014 - 3:26 PM

Dan Lewis figures Canada's volleyball team has logged well over 100,000 kilometres this summer.

It's a journey that has the Canadians in Poland for the world championships — and one they hope will continue all the way to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Canada opens against No. 2-ranked Russia on Monday in Gdansk, in a world championship that's not only important in itself, but a huge step on the road to Rio.

"These events, if we don't compete against the best teams in the world every time we step on the court, how do we think we're ever going to get to the Olympics?" Lewis said. "These are not just for learning and training, these tournaments are so important."

The 15th-ranked Canadians arrived in Poland on the heels of a hectic summer of World League action that saw them fly twice to Europe, then to Australia, then to Argentina and finally back to Europe once more for the world championships.

"The travelling was just insane," said Lewis, a 38-year-old from Oakville, Ont.

They picked up a few injuries along the way.

"The travel was really difficult in World League and we ended up having a couple of guys banged up," said Glenn Hoag, Canada's head coach. "The team is aging in the fact that they're playing 12 months of the year so guys have injuries that are starting to show, mainly overuse injuries. With the travel, it made things worse this year."

On the plus side, the injuries allowed some young players to step into key roles.

"Now at the end of the summer, a couple of young guys have got to play and have shown a big step forward, so we have Nick Hoag (who's 22) and T.J. Sanders (20). . . these two guys are making a huge impact at a young age right now," Lewis said.

Glenn Hoag — who's also Nick's father — has set a goal of a top-six finish, which would be an all-time best for Canada. But the Canadians are a year removed from finishing fifth in the 2013 World League, a series of games that included a victory over Russia, the 2012 Olympic champions.

"It's (possible), but we'll have to start really well in the first round," Hoag said. "But obviously the competition is super hard, every team is very strong, we need to gain maximum points in the first round because we carry points to the second round."

Russia is also the defending European champion, and will be the class of the field in Poland, Hoag said.

"Right now it's their time," the coach said. "Russia didn't have a great World League but I think they were resting some of their starters. We know they have their full team now."

Canada will also be in tough against No. 8 Bulgaria on Wednesday. The Canadians will wrap up Pool C action against Egypt (No. 17), Mexico (22) and finally China (19).

"Volleyball is a very international game, so every match is a battle," Hoag said.

The top four teams in each of the four pools of six move on.

Lewis, who's making his fourth world championship appearance, said last summer's victory over Russia, a thriller that saw them rally from two sets down, was a huge one for Canada. It gave them their best-ever fifth-place finish among the world's top 18 countries, and also set a new standard for the team.

"Most of the teams, they don't take us lightly anymore," Lewis said. "Every year we've gotten better, especially in the last six, seven years. And they look at us differently now, I notice it all the time."

Canada's men's volleyball team hasn't made an Olympic appearance since 1992. They were one win away from going to London two years ago, but lost out to the United States in the qualifying tournament.

A strong performance in Poland will help the Canadians in their quest to get to Rio.

"For us, obviously the Olympics is the ultimate goal for all amateur athletes," Lewis said. "But it's once every four years, and there are other big events that are world class that don't get the exposure that the Olympics get, and we need to embrace these as massive important tournaments as athletes.

"And there are always fans that will embrace it wherever we are," he added. "Although it's not very popular in North America, the rest of the world actually likes volleyball. You get a lot of support."

Poland defeated Serbia in the opening game of the world tournament on Saturday, held in front of 60,000 fans in a soccer stadium in Warsaw.

The qualifying process for the world championships began in 2012 with a record-279 countries.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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