New coach optimistic as Canada enters World League final 6

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TJ Sanders sets to Canadian teammate Graham Vigrass/Team Canada photo.

Both North American teams have qualified for the FIVB World League Finals that start Tuesday in Curitiba, Brazil. While the USA men face France in the first round on the Fourth of July, our northern neighbor opens play against the home team, always a tough task. Also in the final six are Serbia and Russia.

Canadian volleyball aficionado Chris Johns, the author of Pischke Power who lives in Vancouver, B.C., previews his country’s team.

By Chris Johns for VolleyballMag.com

Playing in the World League is like running a marathon with 12 rounds of boxing thrown in for good measure. The best volleyball teams in the world have to have endurance to run the distance and be able to take their opponents’ best shot and keep fighting. Only the strong survive.

For the second straight season, Canada has run the marathon and the finish line is in sight. Canada cruised through the pool play last year, with an 8-1 record. This year, the road was significantly tougher, coming back from one set deficit to defeat Italy 3-1 to claim its spot in the final six.

“We didn’t win against the best teams like Serbia, Brazil and France but we played well in the matches we had to win,” Team Canada coach Stephane Antiga said. “Now we have to work hard to win against the best teams and we want to have a consistent level of play. We qualified because we played well against Bulgaria and won against the new Italian team. We won three tiebreaks and played consistent volleyball.”

It’s easy to think that Canada belongs after its fifth-place finish at the Rio Olympics. And in pool play of this year’s World League, Canada showed flashes of brilliance along with consistency. Canada has experienced some big changes this past year with the retirement of elite right-side hitter Gavin Schmitt and a change in head coaches, with Antiga replacing Glenn Hoag. For some teams, that would be tall task. But Canada appears to have taken the changes in stride and is showing a competitive spirit for the new coach.

“I’m very happy with the (World League) results,” Antiga said. “It was important for us to make the final six. It was our goal from the start. It wasn’t easy but we played well. I also really liked how we played and our team spirit and the way we were fighting for points in the matches. I could see that we played better every weekend.”

World League play means that visiting teams like Canada have to go into hostile environments and win. The home side gets the emotional advantage of the crowd and familiarity with their surroundings. Canada did a good job throughout pool play in winning on the road and in the Final 6, things don’t get any easier. The open-air arena at Curitiba is well-known in international volleyball circles.

“During the pool play, we played well against the host teams and now we have to do it again going against Brazil,” Antiga said. “It will be a great experience to play in Brazil because it’s a huge competition hall with close to 40,000 capacity. We won’t have a lot of time to train there before the matches, so we need to adapt very quickly. Brazil played well during the first weekends and they knew they were already in the Finals. We can expect a much stronger game from them.”

Canada’s Daniel Vandoorn attacks in a match against the USA/Team Canada photo

When Antiga took over the Team Canada head-coaching job after Rio, he looked at the talent on the roster and liked what he saw, especially at the setter position. TJ Sanders played at the University of Manitoba under Garth Pischke and gained important experience leading up to the Rio Olympics. Sanders is like a coach on the floor and Antiga knows he can rely on him.

“It’s true that the relationship between coach and setter is important. It’s important with all the players but especially with the setter,” Antiga said. “I’m really happy with the way TJ plays and how he trains. He is a real competitor and I can say the same about our second setter Brett Walsh. We work well together and it will continue to improve throughout the summer.”

The key, he said, is getting Sanders to “maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. It depends on our opponent. I work with him on not becoming predictable. When I’m doing an analysis of each opponent, it’s their weakness I’m working to find. We also work a lot in practice about being ‘readable’ and being able to hide the next set he will make. As the setter, he has to block, play defense and serve. But the most important part of his game is to set for the team.”

Hoag, whose team beat the USA in the first match of last summer’s Olympics, left the roster stocked with versatile and experienced hitters and blockers, so Antiga thinks he has options to match up with the best teams in the world. In pool play, Canada got solid front-row contributions from Graham Vigrass (University of Calgary), Daniel Jansen VanDoorn (Trinity Western) and Stephen Marr (McMaster University). Gord Perrin (Thompson Rivers University) has stepped into the captain’s role and provides big serves and big blocks as one of the longest-tenured Canadian players.

Another player who has attracted a lot of attention is young gun Sharone Vernon-Evans. The 18-year old from Scarborough, Ontario, has delivered some big kills from the right side since the beginning of World League play. He touched 12-foot-6 in spike touch testing this past April and has taken to the international game with little sign of nerves. He and Vigrass teamed up to block Italian left-side hitter Antonov on match point to send Canada to the final six.

“I’m very satisfied with his play,” Antiga said. “He has improved a lot in the last two months. When we’re traveling with World League, we don’t get a lot of practice time but we do a lot of video work, especially with the younger guys. Sharone has the ability to learn very quickly and he’s really good at managing pressure. When it comes to his technique, he doesn’t seem like a young player. He’s a complete player and has all the attributes to be the ‘Next One’ like Gavin Schmitt. He’s learning how to be a professional athlete by taking care of his body and adapting to the weight training.”

Antiga said he might not start, but will play plenty.

“He’s becoming an important player on the team and that’s a very positive development.”

Antiga took Poland to the World League gold medal in 2014.

“The World League has been good for us already and we want more,” Antiga said. “(Making the top 6) was our goal right after qualification and now our new goal is to get a medal. It’s ambitious and will be very difficult. But we can’t go there like tourists. We need to go there and compete.

“We are far from the favorites but we are capable of playing beautiful volleyball and winning against Russia or Brazil. Right now, we haven’t won against them but we have trained well. If Brazil doesn’t play its best volleyball, we have a chance to beat them. We are ready to compete.”

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