Alexa Gray (CAN)

Each of the 32 national teams which are set to appear at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Nations League has their own reasons to be excited about the return to international competition, but for Canada’s women’s team, it goes beyond being back together on a volleyball court.

Ranked 18th in the FIVB World Ranking, the Canadians are about to take part in the tournament for the first time after they qualified with their victory at the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Challenger Cup. Their VNL debut was supposed to take place in 2020, but the tournament was cancelled due to the pandemic, delaying their first appearance.

For 26-year-old outside hitter Alexa Gray, the opportunity to play against the best teams in the world from May 25-June 20 in the secure ‘bubble’ in Rimini, Italy, will be extremely valuable for the team’s long-term growth.

“I’m really proud of the work our team and coaching staff put in to get us into the VNL,” she told Volleyball World. “We have been continuing to grow as a programme for the past few years and competing against the best will help our team gain experience. These are the types of tournaments that help teams grow so we are really excited to get to play a lot of matches at a very high level.”

Canada, who will face Brazil, the United States and the Dominican Republic in their first VNL matches, enter the tournament as a potential dark horse as they have one of the least experienced rosters and are partially restructuring their squad after an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

Because of that context, the team are setting extremely realistic goals for their VNL debut but, at the same time, keeping their hopes they can cause some upsets in the tournament alive.

“Our first goal is to get better every match,” Gray, who played for Italy’s Busto Arsizio in the last club season, added. “It will be hard for us to win a lot of matches against these teams but if we focus on getting better each match we will surprise some of them. We have to just focus on our side of the net and try our hardest to execute our game plan. Our main goal is to stay in the VNL for the 2022 season to continue to improve as a programme.”

The changes in the Canadian team started at the top with the promotion of Shannon Winzer, a former assistant and head coach of the country’s development programme NextGen, to the head coaching position.

Winzer, who previously coached the Australian national team, is having the first opportunity to coach her new players at a training camp the team is having in Italy ahead of the VNL. The group started working together at the beginning of May and is confident the time they have together will be enough to prepare them to have a solid campaign in the VNL.

“Shannon has a clear vision about what she wants for this programme,” Gray, who was the best scorer of the 2019 Volleyball Challenger Cup, reflected. “Practices have been good and specific to what we need to work on as a team. I'm confident that what the coaching staff has put together will put us in the best possible scenario and will prepare us for the VNL. We are working really hard in the gym to try and find some connection as a group and trying to find a good system that will help us win games.”