Comeback win has Canadian volleyball team on verge of Olympics
VANCOUVER -- Their Olympic dream was in danger of vanishing, but the Canadian men's volleyball team refused to quit.
After losing the opening two sets, Canada rallied from behind to beat Cuba 3-2 on Saturday night - putting themselves in the driver's seat to claim a berth at this summer's Olympic Games.
“They didn't quit because they wanted it,” Canada's head coach Glenn Hoag said after the emotional victory. “They have been working so hard at it.”
The Canadian men, ranked seventh in the world, dropped the first two sets by identical 25-22 scores to the 18th-ranked Cubans. They pulled themselves from the brink with wins of 25-12, 25-21 and 15-9 before a large, vocal crowd during the NORCECA men's Tokyo qualification tournament played at Pacific Coliseum.
A win over Puerto Rico on Sunday punches Canada's ticket to the Olympics.
“It's almost unbelievable,” said Toronto's Arthur Szwarc. “We were a little on our heels and didn't know what to expect. We came through the third set and it just shot up from there.
“We came this far. We wanted to keep fighting.”
All the sets were close. There were long rallies, big blocks and booming spikes.
Cuba quickly took a 4-1 lead in the deciding fifth set, but the Canadians didn't panic. They chipped away, took the lead then overpowered the Cubans.
After the winning point the Canadian players flooded onto the floor hugging and high-fiving each other.
“A lot of emotions,” Szwarc said explaining the feelings on the floor.
“I don't think we questioned ourselves. We stayed together. We have a lot of energy and a lot of emotions going for us.”
Canada trailed by as much as five points in the opening set but battled back to tie the score three times. Cuba looked in control after taking a 23-20 lead, but the Canadians climbed to within one before losing.
The second set opened with Cuba scoring the first four points and leading 8-3 at one point. The Canadians dug in their heels, took advantage of a couple Cuban mistakes, and fought back to take a 10-9 lead. The set remained close until the end.
With their backs against the wall Canada came out firing in the third set, quickly building a 14-4 lead before cruising to a 13-point victory.
Canada held a 17-10 lead in the fourth set. The Cubans stayed calm and got to within two before losing, setting up a deciding fifth set.
“They respected the game plan,” Hoag said about the turnaround. “We just struggled a little bit running our offence and scoring.
“We started playing a little smarter. The guys started mixing up their attacks. We ended up really taking over.”
Canada opened the tournament Friday night beating No. 21 Mexico in straight sets 25-16, 25-14, 15-1. On the same night, Cuba defeated 24th ranked Puerto Rico 25-18, 25-14, 25-19.
In Saturday's opening match, Puerto Rico edged out Mexico in three close sets 26-24, 25-23, 25-23.
In Sunday's other game Cuba plays Mexico.
Hoag said Canada won't be taking Puerto Rico lightly.
“We expect a tough match,” he said. “We need to really focus on our game.”
The Canadian men qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics after an absence from the Summer Games of almost a quarter-century. The 12th-seeded Canadians bowed out to Russia in the quarterfinals.
While the men are playing Vancouver, the Canadian women's team are at an Olympic qualifying tournament in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
The round-robin tournament consists of best-of-five matches. The team with the best record wins. If there is a first-place tie, it's broken by match points.
A team that wins a match 3-0 earns five points while the loser gets none. In a 3-1 match, the winner receives four points and the loser one. In a 3-2 match, the winner gets three and the loser two.
Five Canadian teams - men's and women's rugby sevens, women's softball, men's field hockey and women's water polo - have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. That matches the previous high of a non-boycotted Games - excluding the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when the country sent nine teams as a host.
Besides the volleyball squads, Canada's basketball and soccer teams also have a chance to earn a berth in Tokyo.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2020.