Gavin Schmitt in action against ChinFIVB

More challenges ahead for Olympic bound volleyball team

Canada’s first Olympic men’s volleyball appearance since 1992 won’t be an easy one.

After clinching one of the final spots for Rio 2016 men’s volleyball on Sunday, Canada officially joined Pool A for the Games. The Canadians will play Brazil (ranked No. 1 in world by FIVB), Italy (No. 4), the United States (No. 5), France (No. 10) and Mexico (No. 24).

The United States won the 2015 FIVB Volleyball World Cup while Italy finished second. Meanwhile, France won last year’s FIVB Volleyball World League and European championship.

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At London 2012, Brazil was edged by Russia in the gold medal match while Italy won bronze. Brazil has appeared in the gold medal game of men’s volleyball in the past three Olympics, winning silver at London 2012 and Beijing 2008 and gold at Athens 2004.

No Canadian team has qualified for Olympic volleyball since the women’s squad did so at Atlanta 1996. The last time the men’s team qualified was at Barcelona 1992, where they finished 10th.

While Canada’s pool appears challenging, the road the team took to qualify for Rio 2016 was anything but easy.

Playing on home court in Edmonton in early January, Canada was one win away from clinching an Olympic spot. In the tournament final, errors and a dominant performance by Rolando Cepeda led Cuba to a 25-15, 25-21, 25-21 win, earning the visitors the automatic regional (NORCECA) spot for Rio 2016.

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By finishing second at the tournament, Canada qualified for a last chance tournament in Japan, which was held last week. Taking on No. 2 Poland and No. 8 Iran in their first two games, No. 10 Canada lost both matches – but by taking each to five sets, the team picked up two valuable points.

Canada needed another five sets against Australia, but this time came out on the winning side (25-19, 24-26, 20-25, 29-27, 15-11). After beating Venezuela in straight sets (20-25, 20-25, 25-27), the team got hammered by France (17-25, 17-25, 16-25) but rebounded with a 1-3 victory (25-23, 19-25, 21-25, 19-25) over host Japan.

Canada celebrates a point against China on June 5, 2016 in Tokyo at the final Olympic qualifying tournament for Rio 2016 (Photo: FIVB).

Canada celebrates a point against China on June 5, 2016 in Tokyo at the final Olympic qualifying tournament for Rio 2016 (Photo: FIVB).

On Sunday, the final day of the Olympic qualification tournament, Canada needed to beat China and hope for an Australian loss to Poland in order to clinch the final Rio spot. Canada did its part, beating China 3-2 (25-16, 20-25, 24-26, 25-20, 15-9) and then watched Poland down Australia in straight sets.

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“We battled today, it was a lot of pressure. We’ve been in this situation before when we had a shot to get to Rio, and last time we were in that position we crumbled pretty hard,” Canada captain Rudy Verhoeff told following Sunday’s game. “Today I’m happy with our resiliency. I’m proud of how we fought today.”

Men’s Olympic volleyball will take place from August 7-21 at the Marcanazinho.