Saturday, August 29, 2009

Semi Finals BABY!!

A very exciting day for us on the sand here in Toronto as we competed in the second day of play for the Canadian National Championships. We both had great sleeps and brought a higher intensity to our play as our competition was a little stiffer.

Our first match was to finish off our pool play games. We played Kevin Ben and Denny Moser, a team who has been battling in the Ontario tournaments for quite some time and can play well when they need to.  We new what we had to do but reserved our energy as we played close sets but sealed them out in the last switches when it counted. We won that game in control and finished our pool play with a 4-0 record. This allowed us to keep our second seed in the tournament and go on to play the 15th seed for the first round of single elimination playoffs.  I am not sure what I said in my last update but this years format different from last years as now the playoff rounds begin after pool play.

The second game was against a classic duo who I have been playing for years. Ryan Cawsey of BC was playing with good friend Anton Hauser who has played in many FIVB events and is quite experienced.  We decided to serve Ryan as he is the taller player and trains far less than his partner. The wind was quite strong and we managed to pull away strong in each set after being up 12-9 for the technical timeouts.  We started ripping our jump serves into the wind but they controlled them handily so we switched to float serving and immediately were rewarded. Ryan was shaky on his passes and we forced him to hit quite a few hitting errors long with the wind. Ahren and I really gelled on defense and with a few set up blocking/defensive plays we sealed the game.  This round of 16 match challenged us in the wind against a big block and helped prepare us for our quarterfinal match later that afternoon.

We were assigned center court for the quarterfinals and that is where I shine.  I live to play on center court! I enjoy the showmanship of beach volleyball because it is such an interactive and exciting sport with spectators feet away from the court.  This game was no exception and we played the best we have played together yet.  Our opponents were a solid team that has had some success this year in Ontario.  Paul Podstawka has been a National team athlete for a year or two and has traveled to play in a few international FIVB events. His partner was Dave Quinn who is a relatively new guy to beach volleyball in Canada since he has been playing pro indoor for the last while. They are a respectable team and we new we needed to play top notch ball from the first whistle.

We started on fire. They were serving me and I was siding out like my life depended on it. We were earning points on defense almost every time we went back to serve and we wound up taking a the first set 21-12.  Thus far in our season we have had difficulty with teams we blow out in the first set.  We knew we had to keep focused on our side of the net and stay motivated and aggressive to fend off their comeback.  We dictated the second set from the first point and didn't let go throughout its entirety.  We made some incredible plays on defense and really earned our lead. I hadn't felt that good for quite some time and they were forced to serve Ahren because I didn't miss a single attack.  At 18-11 for us, Paul tried stalling for time after the whistle blew for my service and they received a red card. This brought the match to 19-11 and we earned the next two points to claim our most convincing victory yet!

It was a great day for us and we are really looking forward to building on our performance tomorrow.  We will be playing Jessi Lelliott and Ben Saxton in the semis tomorrow morning at 10:30 and that is a match I would very much like to win. I have played with both of our opponents so there is a little more at stake then a medal!

Before I tuck into bed here, I just wanted to mention we went to a fantastic dinner tonight to celebrate the last 20 years of beach volleyball excellence in Canada.  Mark Heese put together a fantastic BBQ and ceremony which was very touching and highly enlightening about the history of our sport here in Canada. It was held at the Bondi Beach Club which was where beach volleyball was first played in Canada in the 50's! I met some icons of our sport I didn't even know existed. There was an amazing video presentation put together by professionals at CBC which summarized some of Canada's highlights at the International and Olympic levels as well as an unveiling of a plaque with all past (and to be) National Championship winners. It was a great night full of emotion and pride with the backbone community of beach volleyball in Canada. It will be a great honor to stand on top of the podium tomorrow knowing a little more about the history of our sport and knowing how so many people supporting us across our vast nation.

Time for sleep and wish us the best for tomorrow!!!!



Friday, August 28, 2009

In Canada and Loving it!

It feels great to be back in the homeland! Speaking with friends, actually having a clean phone conversation with my family rather than on skype and eating my favorite snack of granola, plain yogurt and maple syrup! 

I am currently staying with my beach partner Ahren and his lovely girlfriend Emily, close to Ash Bridges Bay just east of downtown Toronto.  I have a wonderful couch to sleep on and they Emily has been taking care of me like my mother would which is quite a big set of shoes to fill for those of you who know my super mother.  We managed to train once a day leading up to Nationals to keep our sand legs but the focus was more on the mental aspects than anything.  We know our A game is right there, and we are looking to connect all the dots and peak for the National Championships. 

Today marked the start of the three day event with a round of pool play to establish rankings for a power pool format which then leads to a single elimination playoff bracket. The weather teased us with sun in the morning but midway through our first game at 8:30, the wind picked up and clouds rolled in making the rest of the day vicious. 

Our first match was against Ben Feist who is a good friend from the West Coast and a partner he had never met before by the name of Chris Simek who was a National Team athlete in 2008. I will start by saying how much I respect Ben. He came down to Brazil last year and trained for 4 weeks because he had always dreamed of playing in an International event.  He took time off work and trained is butt off with a Brazilian friend of mine because he didn't want to miss his chance of living his dream.  He is now out here, with a partner he doesn't know, competing at the toughest National Championships I have seen and he will be trying out for our National team camp following the competition next week. He is in his early 30's and he couldn't care less what people think because he wants it and loves the sport.  Like I mentioned earlier, this game started at 8:30 in decent weather but in the middle of the first set, things deteriorated.  Well the same thing went for our game! We were up 12-9 at the switch but then Chris went back to serve right as the wind came.  Chris's serve is a weapon and with a heavy wind it can be deadly. He ripped off 4 or 5 aces in a row and put us in serious trouble, especially me because I was the one getting aced! We lost the first 21-18 but recovered nicely in the second with a convincing win of 21-17. The third saw us hit our stride and we ripped serves, blocked and sided out to win 15-8. A shaky start but in our next match we knew we couldn't come out flat because our opponents were young national team athletes with their barrels pointed squarely at our heads. 

Committed to fire this game up and prove our ranking, we jumped to a 21-13 first set victory against the young talented boys. Chaim Schalk who set for Trinity Western University was playing defense against a high school phenom who had the highest vertical jump in our entire national team camp! Both are relatively new to the beach so our game plan was to bomb serves and put them in trouble in the wind. We were able to execute this plan nicely in the first but they fought a little harder in the second.  We went down 11-10 at the second set technical timeout but took the lead as we switched to the superior serving side. With a 15-13 switch and then a great hold on the bad side, we wound up closing the match at 21-17 with some great blocks and heavy aces.  Our ball control really shined and we were able to make some fantastic transition points which started with cannon serves into the win.  Confident with our play, we rested until 4 when we were to play the second ranked team in our pool who are the top ranked Quebec team.

Our opponents just came off a Silver medal at the Canada Summer Games in PEI last week and to their credit, they are great athletes and have excellent ball control.  Lucky for me, my partner had a few sets of aces in his pockets and we thumped them in the first set. Ahren was serving so well into the wind that I couldn't help feeling bad for them after a 5 or 6 ace streak where they barely even touched the ball. They conserved their energy and turned off their play to save for the next set.  A tough battle the second set turned out to be as they increased serving pressure into the wind and they started connecting on their sideouts.  We switched down 10-11, barely held on for a 14-14 switch and bled for a few points to regain the lead on the bad side for an 18-17 switch! Once on the good side, Ahren served 3 aces and they hit one ball out to seal it at 21-17.

All in all it was a successful day as we reaffirmed our superior ball control and siding out. I was pleased with my serving and blown away by Ahren's!! We brought solid intensity and will have to bring it for one more game to sinch our pool tomorrow morning.  That game will be played at 10:15 so wish us luck!!! 

Thanks for all the support from friends and family and I will repost tomorrow.



Thursday, August 20, 2009

Final European fight

Somehow beach volleyball has taken us to Aland, an Island just off the coast of Finland where past Swedish player Simon Dahl has established an FIVB open joint with the Swedish Fedration.
A lovely event in a place that reminds be of a less beautiful Gulf Islands in the Southern Vancouver Island region.  It is colder and the architecture is far inferior to the artsy and natural wood norm in BC.  

The weather has decided to comply after our first day of cold showers and winds, our qualification draw has lined us up against one of two swedes; we are pleased. Our second match had the possibility of being a heart wrencher as the winner of us vs the Swedes lined up with the winner of Josh and Matt of Canada and a solid Russian team.  

Our physical preparation for this event was minimal to keep fresh as being on tour for 7 weeks can wreak havoc on your body if you don't treat yourself right.  This is usually the time when my body decides to break down but this year I am still strong and feeling excellent aside from an reoccurring ankle injury I suffered in the first tournament.  My preparation in Brazil has served me very well and I am excited to say that I won't need much time off this year before starting my 2010 season. Anywho, taking proper rest time before this event gave us an edge and we felt great moving into the first round of the qualy.

The Swedes have been around the game for a while and I have seen them in training camps around the world.  We chose to serve the taller of the two as he was more of a direct player and our strategy of playing straight up defense on him worked out as he played right into our pockets.  I served light because the wind was quite gusty but Ahren went for his jump serve.  We made some great points with blocks and transition digs and we held our sideouts well enough to take the game convincingly.

As we played our game, our crossover match was determined as the Russians were victorious over our Canadian friends. I was pleased with this result because we were actually bunking with them and it always adds extra stress when you play your fellow countrymen, especially in single elimination format. 

The Russians have been around for some time as well but are my age.  I had never played against them but we scouted them well and decided to put the pressure on the big left side player for he was less versatile and more readable. The wind was present but not a huge factor which for me is perfect conditions for ripping my jump serve harder and deeper.  We started the match with a 5-2 switch us and built on it from there.  I served 6 points in a row and wound up with an 11-3 second switch.  I was blocking lights out and when the ball passed me it either went out or into Ahren's bread basket. We were executing perfectly and I felt I could do anything I wanted; we played flawless first set ball. The set ended at 21-10 and going into the timeout we didn't know how we could improve our performance. This is always the toughest position to be in because clearly the other team will make an adjustment and come out more aggressive and the pressure is on you to continue the pace you established.  We came out the second set as pumped as we could and we held onto a 7-7 switch with a crafty play. We went up 12-9 but then something interesting happened, we eased up.  They had started serving Ahren because my sideout game was impeccable in the first but mid second, the tested me and I made an error.  All of a sudden the sideout game was in my hands and things weren't as easy as in the first! We battled back and forth, giving up two points here and then making them back in a heart beat.  The game was tense, full of emotion and power as the big boys on each team battled at the net. We lost the second set 22-20. We weren't able to recover our lead and as they picked up confidence, it evaporated on our side just as quick. 

The third set started with three simple errors on our side of the net. They served me deep and I didn't adjust so I wound up putting myself in an inferior position to attack.  We took at time out and recovered to make it 3-2 but they immediately pounced back to a 5-2 lead.  Shaky was the name of the game and we ended the third set at 15-11, unable to make points and hold onto them.

It was a devastating loss and it really hit me hard. We had it with ease and then we questioned ourselves because it came so easy and then lost our grip.  There have been few times in my life I have been so disappointed and it took me quite sometime to recover mentally. I was so displeased with myself because it was all an internal battle, the other team didn't change their strategy to challenge us. It is always tough when you blow out a team in the first set because the second is a completely different game.

After the match we had some time alone and allowed some of the dust to settle.  There were no teams missing so a lucky loser spot wasn't going to happen. Our final European event of 09 ended with a non-qualification but we had to look at the positives in the situation.

Ahren and I partnered up a week before worlds and had that time to prepare to play at the top international level.  We were competing against teams who have been playing together for years or at least a full off season to gel. We did our best to make adjustments on the road and to adapt to each other but without a 3rd party to break it down for us it was difficult to tell each other what to do or how to change.  We competed against great teams but weren't able to pull out some close victories, victories which are sealed by well oiled teams who trust in each other. 

We have developed a team that battles and we came closer and closer to upsetting to seeds as the season wore on. We are now back in Canada preparing for our National Championships and we are confident in our current play. We have learned a lot in Europe and the 2009 Nationals will be our time to shine.

I will keep this blog updated with National results this weekend!!!



Friday, August 14, 2009

Big Battle in Kristiansand

It is the day after our exit from the main draw in Kristiansand, Norway.  The sun toasty but the wind is chilly as Norway brings me soothing memories of the west coast; I have been on the road for 11 weeks and the thought of being at home with my family has never been so attractive.

Two days ago we successfully entered the main draw through a lucky loser path. Amazing that it came down to luck but I had no doubt in my mind we would be competing in the main draw and sure enough, our friend Marcio pulled our names out first.  Our draw matched us up with the number 3 team in the tournament, Russia's Barsouk/Koladinski who have had a few top 4 showings as of late. A difficult opponent for sure but I revel in games where we have nothing to lose against top teams.  We came out firing and had a fabulous battle with them.  We were leading the entire match 4-3, 8-6, 11-8, with me sideing out, but for us to go up 18-17, they served Ahren and I got called on a beautiful handset. Anger.  I have never felt so much anger well up from inside me. What a silly call for the ref to make on a perfect handset; it was totally uncalled for and nobody watching our court agreed. This put is down in the 18-17 switch but we came back to tie it at 19-19.  This is when the second terrible call didn't go our way.  The second serve to go to Ahren came off the net and I gave him a high set on top of the tape.  He got there a little late and tried to wipe the ball of the blockers hands out of bounds for us to get the point.  He successfully used the blockers hands and it landed out on our side, clearly proving the point should be awarded to us.  The ref didn't see it that way (besides all the obvious facts) and gave the point to Russia.  We were absolutely livid but committed to making it back and winning the set.  We were serving very well and I had 5 stuff blocks by this point in time; it was a perfect game aside from the ref stepping in unnecessarily.  We pushed hard but in the end Russia overcame our strengths and won 25-23. What a disappointment for us to lose because without the two ref's unwarranted calls, we would have taken the first set.  At this level, especially when you are playing a top 5 in the world team, the game comes down to 1 or 2 points making it crucial for every call to go the right way.

The second set they were steady and we were streaky.  Frazzled by the ref's calls and trying to pass Igor's over 100 km/h spin serve, we slowly spiraled into a second set loss. And then when we hadn't heard from the ref all second set, he chirped in on another PERFECT hand set by me.  UNREAL! Another high pass off the net and I took it high and quickly but the ref just didn't like its crispness and called it a lift.  This was to sideout at 19-14, to make it 19-15.  Ahren absolutely lost his mind and received a card (I am glad he did because that ref needed to know he was poo) so we ended the match on a red card point for the other team and lost 21-14! 

Once we cooled off and settled back into our natural rhythms, we found out we were matched against Germany for our second match. This German team is a strong team and consists of two excellent jumpers who love hitting steep angles and hard spin serves.  The scouting report was to block cross and trap them but unfortunately that plan didn't evolve into point making.  We were on the outside court, almost on the water so the wind was gusty.  The game came down to serving hard and sideing out on the bad side and they executed that better than us.  I think we lost 21-17, 21-16 but we just weren't able to make ANY points.  Ahren got the only block of the match and there were few rallies to count.  For some reason they played more of a finesse game and it hit us where we didn't expect.  On our side, we struggled to keep our sets in front of us so we lost our vision on offense, therefore making some silly hitting errors or mediocre attacks. 

We now have one more tournament to go before we head back to Canada for our national championships.  Aland, Finland is next week leaving us one more showing to excel for an entire game, or set of games.  What we really need is a 3rd party to come and help us out.  We aren't able to change our game because our perspectives come from inside the game and it is tough for each of us to coach each other when most of it is personal.  We are lost in terms of what to change or not to change so our new Team Canada head coach will definitely be able to help us when we get back to Toronto.  Either way, we are competing against teams with full coaching staff and support networks.  I hate using this as an excuse, and I normally don't look at it this way but after an email from my mom, it rings true.  We are alone out here, battling each week in new and different places while planning our next meals, hotels, transportation, game preparation and all the while maintaining our fitness and beach volley skills.  There is no guidance, no external influence and few anchors other than each other on the road.  We receive limited support from our federation and for this and the aforementioned reasons,  our commitment is tested daily on the road to becoming champions.  With all the odds against me, I am battling with everything I have and I am slowly breaking my oppositions down and building on my own successes. I will persevere because I am strong, I have a firm belief in myself and an undying passion for what I do and the goals I want to achieve.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lucky Losers in Kristiansand, Norway

I am a few weeks behind due to lack of access to the internet so I will review some of our recent successes and travels in the next post, but this one will be dedicated to our "Lucky Loser" draw in the Kristansand FIVB Open.  

Firstly, to those of you who don't know about the "Lucky Loser", it is a draw that occurs between the two highest ranked losing teams at the end of the qualification tournament to fill in a main draw spot caused by a late withdrawl from a pre-qualified team.  

We were blessed enough to have a few teams withdraw late from the event here as we lost a tight game to Mexico in the last round of the qualifier. 

Our first game was against a Swedish team who didn't have many points.  We were ranked 5th in the qualification tournament which lined us up to play two rounds against teams with fewer points than us.  The Swedes didn't have much experience at the international level but were good athletes.  It was a bit windy on the exterior court in the bay so we were able to capitalize on our superior ball control and patience.  We didn't play our top game and it worked best for us as we got the win and the Mexican team scouting us didn't get much of a report! 

Our second match featured a battle against a Mexican team who is very strong.  They took some time off at the end of last year and the start of this year so they had considerably fewer points than their skills indicated.  We started the match with crisp sideouts and made a few points here and there on both Mexican players but wound up being down 18-17 after a heavy rally. We sided out a few more times and wound up stealing the advantage back at 20-19. Unfortunately we weren't able to hold onto our sideout composure and lost the match 23-21.  We had been so strong throughout the beginning of the match but when it came time to push for the win, we over thought the situation and wound up changing what was working for us in the first place. 

In the second set we immediately went down 3-1 and couldn't bring the score back to even over the rest of the set.  We went down 9-5 and they held us at that scoring distance for the rest of the match.  We wound up tightening our playing style and making a few more tentative errors, errors we told ourselves we wouldn't make since our team excels with big serves, spikes and blocks.  The Mexicans fought hard and earned the second set Victory after many great rallies and digs.  We are still trying to figure out what went wrong and how they beat us but that is a lot tougher when your camera ran out of batteries and didn't record the game!

With this loss in the last round, we were in solid contention for the "Lucky Loser" draw at the Men's Technical Meeting. We showed up and our good friend Marcio (08 Olympic Silver Medalist) said he would sit in the front to specifically draw our name for us out of the bowl! We trusted him and had faith we were going to be chosen and sure enough, we were the first team picked! There were three spots available for lucky losers so we had a maximum of 3 draws to receive main draw status.  Marcio chose our names after grabbing one and thinking it wasn't the right slip! He pulled through for us and we are now preparing for tomorrow first round match against the 3rd ranked team in the event.  This top ranked team is the first Russian team and we look forward to implementing a solid game plan to post an upset.  

Thanks for all the best wishes from home and I will definitely be typing out my last few weeks once we are finished with the main draw here in our second Norwegian FIVB stop.



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Been a while but going strong

It has been 2 weeks since my last post and I apologize for my tardiness!! Unfortunately internet has not been accessible in both Marseilles, France and Klagenfurt, Austria as the internet in the hotels crashed due to so many players and refs getting into it.

These last two weeks have taken a turn to the positive and I will take you through a light summary of my recent travels and games.

To start off, we landed in Marseilles a few days early after our unfortunate defeat in Moscow. We landed in Marseille on Friday with intentions to train the entire weekend prior to the FIVB Grand Slam there.  Sadly for us, when we got to the courts on Saturday morning, the wind was about 60 km/h! Absolutely silly conditions for volleyball but we managed to play a little competitive game between the two of us and then a no jumping game against Venezuela.  On Sunday the wind died a bit but we decided to train in a private facility on a beach closer to down town called "Catalans" with the brazilian duo of Marcio and Fabio (08 Olympic Silver medalists). We had a mildly frustrating hit with them due to swirling wind but we dealt with it and competed. We continued to train Monday and Tuesday and beat a few high seeded teams as we prepared for Wednesdays qualifier. Wednesday came around and we received a BYE into the main draw as our seed was high and many teams pulled out!!! What a great feeling that was to be directly in without the stress of a single elimination qualification match! Unfortunately that dream was short lived as they were testing a new format for the event which was a single elimination playoff format with the top 16 teams having a BYE in the first round.  

Our first match was scheduled for 7 PM Thursday against an Austrian team but due to high winds, the tournament was delayed 6 hours and our game was bumped to Friday! Excellent, another free night at the hotel and another day to rest and prepare to deliver a beat down. Friday was also postponed and over the span of the day we made 5 trips back and forth between the venue and the hotel as each hour game play was delayed due to high gusty winds. Finally we played at 6 and we made use of our opponents dismay for the stormy yet sunny conditions.  I made a commitment to go back to playing with heart and emotion and through that decision, I released all kinds of energy in my game.  We wound up beating the Austrians in straight convincing sets as we served aces, blocked and dug our way to our first official game victory!
We dominated in every way and I looked forward to bringing that same attitude to our following match.  

Thus far in my career I haven't played any top 10 teams. In Marseille my first change to upset a top seed came along with our draw being against legends Ricardo/Emanuel.  The winningest team in beach volleyball history is no dream draw but where else would we get to play these guys in tough conditions to increase our chances of winning? Pumped for the match, we came in and all of a sudden found ourselves down 11-3.  Not a great start but we chipped away and didn't give up, losing the first set 21-16. In the second set we earned more points and steadied our sideout play but our 11-10 switch in our favor turned into a losing 16-19 switch.  We lost that set 21-17 but we beat ourselves.  They didn't do anything special, we just forced ourselves out of the game.  A disappointing loss but an easy one to come to terms with.  

The Marseilles FIVB Grand Slam is amazing for night life and the 2009 edition was crazy good. A bunch of athletes stayed and shoot their tail feathers on the dance floor that weekend and I took many notes of their setup as bringing their party layout at the venue would be unreal on the west cost of Canada!

We left Marseilles with renewed confidence and a more settling feeling as we both played like we knew we could. Klagenfurt, Austria was our Sunday destination; one of my favorite events in the world!!