Osaka, Japan - After pulling off a grueling 5-set victory (25-23, 23-25, 25-27, 25-18 and 15-7) over the Japanese, Sunday, at the Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium, the Canadian volleyball team booked their spot in the World League final. It was the first time in Canada’s history that they’d qualified for the final of this important international competition, after missing the cut seven times previously.
“It was the objective we set out for ourselves this year. It’s one thing to say it, but to actually do it is a whole other thing entirely. This is a big step we’ve just taken forward. And it was really hard, Canadian head coach Glenn Hoag explained. I’m really happy for the guys. They worked extremely hard to get here, and at times they doubted themselves. But they grew with maturity during the process, and with it they gained confidence in their abilities. After a tough start today, they went out and grabbed a sixth straight victory. And despite all the pressure they had on them, they didn’t buckle. They really impressed me.”
Right from the get-go, there clearly was a nervous energy in the Canadian squad, ranked 18th in the FIVB standings. After cruising to victory in the first match versus the Japanese (19th) yesterday, they found themselves up against a re-energized and much more incisive squad on Sunday.
“The Japanese played much better volleyball today. We knew they would come back much stronger, since technically they are an extremely able squad. Their execution and return of serve was excellent,” Hoag noted.
“On our side, we didn’t do as well in our service game as we did yesterday, and we again made a bunch of errors on simple plays, particularly early on in the match. I felt we were less disciplined as well. A lot of it could be chalked up to fatigue and of course nervousness, since so much was at stake. But the guys stayed patient, kept working hard and never gave up. In the end it was the Japanese who cracked first, in the fourth set,” the Quebecois coach pointed out.
After dropping back-to-back sets, the Canadian squad took matters into their own hands in what would be the decisive fourth set. They also took advantage of a Japanese team that seemed to run out of gas.
“They played some incredible defense that really made it difficult for us to score points. By dropping those two sets, we let them gain a lot of confidence. Against a solid team like Japan, that’s a dangerous thing to let happen,” Canadian captain Fred Winters elaborated.
“Our stress level was pretty high. When we were down 2-1, we all knew in the back our minds that we could be about to blow our shot of qualifying for the final. Even if we weren’t supposed to think about that, it was hard not to. At the same time, we knew that Japan wasn’t as good a team as Russia or Italy, and that eventually they would hit the wall. We got the better of them in the end,” the British Colombian, who picked up 11 points in the win, concluded.
The Albertan Dallas Soonias was the motor that drove the Canadians, registering 24 points, including a massive 21 kills. The Albertan Rudy Verhoeff and the British Colombian Gordon Perrin also helped out in a big way, picking up 18 points each.
Tatsuya Fukuzawa, the 5th best scorer in the 24th edition of the World League, led the Japanese attack with 21 points. His teammates Yu Koshikawa (21 points) and Ysuke Ishijima (17 points) were also in fine form for Japan.
Finland lends a big hand
Canada’s qualification for the World League final was anything but a simple one, as they had to rely on other factors besides a victory over the Japanese. Before the Canadians even stepped on to the floor, they needed a helping hand from the Finnish squad if they wanted any chance of making it to Mar Del Plata in mid-July. Thankfully for the Canadians they got that help in the end, as the Finns beat the Netherlands in four sets, Sunday morning, in Tampere. It was a surprising victory to say the least, as the Finns came into the match on a five-game losing streak in group C.
The events of the day had a huge influence on the overall standings. The points obtained with their second victory over the Japanese squad put the Canadian team through to the finals, giving them a group-leading 23 points in the preliminary round. The Netherlands finished in second (22 points) and the Finns in third with 12 points. Following in the standings were Portugal (11 points), South Korea (10 points) and Japan (9 points).
The Canadians will join the best two teams from groups A and B in Mar Del Plata, which begins in two weeks. The fourth team is Argentina, who as host gets the automatic bid. The preliminary round comes to an end next weekend, as teams in Group A and B finish off their final matches.
By finishing as one of the 6 best teams in the competition, Canada assured themselves the nation’s best ever classification in the World League event. Last year they bowed out in the qualification round, finishing 12th in the event eventually won by Poland.