Canadian men’s volleyball must wait for Rio berth

Canada is ranked No. 10 in the world and is the top team in the competition. (Chris Young/CP)

EDMONTON — The Canadian men’s volleyball team’s quest for a first Olympic berth in 24 years just got a whole lot more complicated.

Canada’s best hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Games were dashed after losing in straight sets to Cuba at the 2016 NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament on Sunday night.

Canada, ranked No. 10 in the world and the top team in the competition, just couldn’t match its oppositions power and precision as No. 15 Cuba dominated in the 25-15, 25-21 and 25-21 result.

"They served aces, they turned points. We didn’t win any big rallies," said captain Fred Winters. "We got a little bit of momentum but we were playing a bit tentatively. There was tons of pressure on us and it definitely showed."

Canada’s Olympic hopes are still alive, however, as its second-place finish in the competition sees the squad advance to a second-chance tournament in Japan in May.

But compared to this tournament, the field is much bigger and features much stronger teams than Canada faced the past few days. The Cuban team was really the only one that was at Canada’s level while the competition in Japan will be an eight-team tournament featuring top Asian teams and strong European teams like France and Poland.

The last time Canada was represented in men’s volleyball at the Olympics was the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

"It’s very hard. This was our best chance," Winters admitted. "We said that earlier and now we go to Japan in May and it’s against some good Asian teams so it’s very difficult."

Canada will be hoping to get one-of-three Olympic berths that are open from that tournament in the hopes of being one of the 12 teams in Rio.

Cuba came out firing in the first set and took an early advantage with some powerful ace serves combined with an overwhelming blocking presence at the net.

While Canada had difficulty putting much together on the attacking front, Cuba was hitting its spots early and eventually capped off the first set when Rolando Cepeda smashed down an ace.

"They started by putting on a lot of pressure with their serves and we had to stay with them and we made crucial hitting errors at the start of the match," said head coach Glenn Hoag. "I think that created an imbalance at the beginning."

Prior to this game, Hoag had mentioned that Cuba’s service reception wasn’t its strength and he felt that was where the nation could be exploited.

But it was Canada’s service reception that struggled and it was Cuba that put up eight service aces over the match — five of which came from Cepeda alone.

"I think (setter Tyler Sanders) did a good job but otherwise, our serves were too easy," Hoag said. "We tried to serve tactically and that worked somewhat but they were better than us in serve and receive and that put pressure on us and put up their block defence which usually is our strength."

Canada came out with an improved performance in the second set and the two teams traded points for much of it.

After Canada put together a 4-1 run to go up 14-12, it started making mistakes and those were amplified later on as spikes were either put wide or long and Cuba remained steady. Cepeda eventually concluded the second set with a spike that Canada couldn’t handle.

"We stabilized our serve reception at the start of the second and third sets," said Hoag. "But for some reason, we kept hitting balls out at crucial moments. At this level you can’t do that."

It was more of the same in the third set as Canada looked good early and had a number of two-point leads but each time Cuba fought back and pulled away late. Canada was ultimately undone when Javier Jimenez put a spike off the Canadian blockers and out.

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