Canada’s men’s volleyball team about to make Group 1 debut

Canada’s men’s volleyball team rose to unprecedented heights last year, making its first Olympic appearance in 24 years and finishing fifth in Rio de Janeiro.

Now, coaches Stephane Antiga and Dan Lewis are asking the players to forget about how far they went, and remember instead the years of hard work it took them to get there.

Canada makes it debut in prestigious Group 1 of the FIVB World League on Friday, which is the first important step on the road to the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

“I think there is a little bit of a (Rio) hangover,” said Lewis, who played libero for Canada before retiring to become an assistant coach last season. ”We have to make sure that we have the same type of sense of urgency in order to get better, and grow. As great as it is to go back there and think about it, it’s ’Really guys, it’s over and we need to remember the 10 years it took us to get back there, and use that as an understanding of what it takes to do this four-year process.’”

Canada earned its spot in Group 1 after finishing atop Group 2 last year, part of its dominant run that saw the team beat Portugal in the final.

The No. 8-ranked Canadians face 18th-ranked Belgium on Friday in Novi Sad, Serbia. They’ll battle the third-ranked Americans on Saturday, then face No. 10 Serbia on Sunday.

They’ll then head to Varna, Bulgaria, for Week 2, June 9-11, to play Brazil, Poland and Bulgaria. They’ll meet France, Italy and Belgium again in Week 3, June 16-18, in Antwerp, Belgium.

Antiga, a 41-year-old and a former player for France’s national team, coached Poland to the 2014 world title. He played professionally under former Canadian coach Glenn Hoag in France, and was hired as Canada’s head coach in December when Hoag stepped aside. Hoag remains the team’s high performance consultant.

Playing in Group 1, said Antiga, is “very motivating” for a young team that features a few new faces after several post-Rio retirements.

“Everybody is very excited to play for the first time, and to play against the best teams in the world. It will be hard, to play three games in a row, so nine games in three weeks, but it will be an excellent test,” the coach said. “We are a new team so we will see what we are able to do. We’re ambitious, we want to qualify to the final six. But we know perfectly it will be very hard.”

Antiga said a good portion of this team will make up the core of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic squad, but said they face a tough road in returning to the Games.

“We need to work a lot, individually and as a team to improve, just to have a chance to qualify it’s very difficult,” he said. “Last year to have an excellent result to qualify and to finish fifth place, it’s something everybody wants to repeat. And everybody remembers how hard it was, and not just during the last year, but the last four-year Olympic cycle.”

Lewis called it a “coup” that Canada landed a coach of Antiga’s calibre.

“He’s really going to be able to accelerate exactly the style and type of learning we need to do here,” Lewis said. “Glenn had to spend a lot of his time on foundational work, and although we still work on that, now tactically skill and technical stuff and analysis is the next level where we’ve got to go, and I think Steph does that well.

“For those who want to learn quick, it’s going to be a very profitable time for them in terms of acquiring tactics and skills, and fine-tuning their games… this is going to be an excellent opportunity for them. For those that won’t learn quickly, they’ll probably fall to the side.”

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