Our three set victory over Jamaica wasn’t the most challenging game but the heat played a toll on our bodies and the rate at which we were able to recover for Sunday’s semis and finals. We did our best to get solid nutrition into our bodies but the players dinner was 3 slices of pizza. SERIOUSLY??? You are hosting an international event with elite athletes and you are serving pizza in limited quantities?!?Needless to say we weren’t pleased so we bought some sub sandwiches and went home to polish them off in an air conditioned environment. Unsatisfied from our dinner we went to bed hungry and a little bitter yet excited for the following day. On a completely unrelated note, the tournament did drop off a six pack of beer in our room but being in the final four we kept our handsies off the cold El Salvadorian moufassa's.
The sun rose at 5, sprinkling dawn into our hotel room. We tried sleeping in but by 7 I couldn’t take the anxiousness anymore and prepared for our fourth final 4 experience on the NORCECA tour! I felt moderately rested yet confident as the book I have been reading (performing under pressure) had been reinforcing powerful thoughts my entire weekend. We still didn’t know what time our semi-final was scheduled for so we went downstairs to eat and locate a bulletin.
Brekke was a standard Sheraton spread and the coffee was dark and potent; just the way I like it on the road. Isolated by our inability to speak Spanish (I try to alter Portuguese a bit but it is just confusing!), we ate breakfast together and planned our schedule around the final day of competition. Our semi was placed at 1:30 and we cringed over the thought of competing in heavy heat and humidity. We rested a bit more, filled up our bottles with electrolyte mixes and rolled down to the site to find the stand still hadn't filled with fans. Hunger crept up on us a bit so we decided to grab a sub but it was so hot (plus I have a small bird's apetite on gameday) it posed a problem. We wound up going bite for bite at the Quizno;s table, forcing ourselves to down half of a small sub so we could sustain a full game at maximum intensity.
We entered the court and began our sand agility warm up immediately. The event didn’t have a warm up court at the mall so we had to make the most of our 10 minutes on the main court before our game officially started. Sweat flowed freely within minutes and the sun’s intensity began draining our energy upon exposure. I consider myself superior than most in high heat, but I have no idea how Ray does it!! He is the toughest redhead on the planet and deserves a Sport Canada reward. Seriously, he is a champ and I challenge any of you to experience what he powers through on tour.
We matched up well with USA #1 (Ty Loomis and Matt Prosser) as they are a new team and bring a heavy offence. Ray is a wise hitter and a master block user so we were comfortable sideing out against them and we knew we could make points through our well rounded defense. Ray’s knee was bugging him more than ever as a case of tendonitis flared up but he put on his game face and we battled on.
We had some great scoring opportunities on defense and serving but unfortunately the ball landed outside by fractions of an inch each time. We were down in both sets at the technical timeouts and they maintained leads with aggressive serving to our seam. Matt scored multiple points hitting into the tape, the ball bouncing in his favour onto the outside of the line each time. They played hard and made more points than us and we lost in a fair battle 21-19, 21-18. A few tentative errors and some marginal misses were the difference but there was no time to look back as we had a semi-final game to play against Cuba.
Cuba consisted of two young and tall athletes. They weren’t as talented as other Cuban athletes I have encountered but they made a good team and their overconfidence let them get away with being less capable than they were. Ray’s knee had digressed and he our warm up wasn’t all that great. I felt a need to do more than I could but didn’t want to change what I was doing in fear of disrupting Ray’s rhythm. As it turned out, I tried doing too much as I peeled off the net frequently (they normally poke over the block but in our game they hit everything early) and I didn't do enough to help Ray on sideout. We lost 21-13. Not a score we wanted to have in our resume. The heat was dwindling but still a factor for us white boys. I was over playing Cuba by peeling off the net as a set play rather than reacting from my gut which exposed seams and limited Ray's defensive instincts and coverage. We got smoked, no way to put it other than that. Unpleased, I took my hat off and changed our team plan for the next set.
I told Ray I was going to stay at the net at all times and take more load off of him on sideout. A genius plan as I cam out jump setting and forced them to respect me as a second contact attacker. I made close to 6 points before they caught on but by that time, I had released some pressure on Ray and he began seeing the openings and connecting on offense. We made points, I made blocks and Ray was healthy enough to transition defensive balls into the open court. We won handily and forced a 3rd set!
The third set was a different game as they had time to discuss our new defensive strategy and try to make some adjustments. We went up and down until 8-7 for them when Ray was in the right position for a dig but his knee gave out as he went to play it. We took a medical as he felt shearing pain on his knee cap and I had a lie down with my feet up on the sponsorship boards. Ray received five minutes of medical attention and was told nothing was wrong (great medical service!) and it allowed me to cool down and slow my heart rate after jump serving and running to the net to block at all times.
The lead extended for them and we suddenly found ourselves down 11-14 for match point. Ray was putting in a flat but deep float serve and I was getting great reads on their hits but the touches weren’t clean. Then it all clicked. Block for 12-14, pokey out for 13-14, big rally and a block for 14-14 and another block for 15-14 us. We switched at 15-15 and then made a sideout for me to serve on the good side up 16-15. This was it, I calmed myself in preparation for a monstrous serve as I knew that by going for an ace I would take pressure off Ray and win the game for us. The ball was thrown to me by a volunteer and it was flat. I didn’t say anything but it bothered me momentarily (Team Canada guys know I hate using flat balls) and then the ref blew his whistle for play to commence. I went over the serve in my mind, visualizing a hard ace down the seam between the Cuban athletes. I threw the ball up and crushed it into the very top of the tape. AAAAAHHHHHHH!! I absolutely detest missing my serves and pride myself in being a clutch player but I missed! I was crushed but moved onwards as I had to keep fighting hard with Ray as he was fading. Back and forth we fought again, and found ourselves up 19-18 after Ray made a great overhead dig and put it over on one to score. Once again we just couldn't convert on defence; we couldn’t hold onto it. Fading after 20-20, we lost 23-21 in what was a heart wrencher for both us and the fans. The 700 plus people rallied behind us after the injury time out and Ray won their hearts by continuing playing. People love an emotional victory but we just couldn't overcome adversity that Sunday in an San Salvadorian parking lot.
A hard one to take but a promising one as well since I had never used my jump set and on two attack as a primary strategy. Turns out it works very well and I look forward to implementing it with Chaim as we prepare in Toronto over April our FIVB season.
An unsatisfying tournament but considering Ray’s injury, we did well. We were contenders for all podium levels had we been uninjured but the nature of sport requires you to compete to the best of your abilities with what you have available at that time. It reminds me of a Jiu Jisu movie where in a specific competition, each athlete blindly chooses a stone and the one who pulls out the black one is given a handicap. The athlete must accept the handicap and fight with no favours or adjusted scoring. At any time you must give it your all, no excuses.
Thanks for reading what were some lengthy and detailed volleyblogs. Now comes a time of rest, personal time and training in Toronto as I change partners and prepare for the FIVB phase of the season. My website will soon be ready so I will be getting that finalized through my good friend and lead designer Adil Amlani! It is going to be GREAT!!!!!!!!!