The Trinity Western University men's volleyball team, representing Canada, is off to a flying start in the U23 Pan American Men's Volleyball Cup.
On the opening day of the international tourney being held at the Langley Events Centre from Sept. 25-30, the Spartans staged an impressive rally from two sets down as they roared back to beat Mexico in five sets.
Set scores were 20-25, 24-26, 25-18, 25-13, and 15-13.
After dropping the first two sets to a young U19 Mexican side - one that was made up entirely of 15- to 17-year-olds - the Spartans turned the match around with an impressive third set, a dominant fourth set, and a tight fifth set.
While Mexico put together a strong performance and was certainly the better side through the first two sets, it wasn't able to match the Spartans physicality down the stretch and ultimately succumbed to a Trinity Western attack that improved throughout the match.
The Spartans were led offensively by Nick Del Bianco who had 16 kills and three aces, and Brad Kufske with 16 kills and three blocks. TWU's Derek Thiessen added 10 kills while Lucas Van Berkel had seven kills.
Playing in his first international game as a setter, Trinity Western's Jarrod Offereins had 15 running sets.
As for Mexico, it was Enrique Ugalde leading the charge as he had 17 kills, while teammate Mauricio Lopez added 11 kills and one block.
Setter Sebastian Castro, who is Mexico's youngest player as he doesn't turn 16 until October, finished with 11 running sets.
With the win the Spartans are now 1-0 in the tournament while Mexico drops to 0-1.
"I thought tonight was a great example of how a great volleyball team with great skills can overcome a size mismatch," Spartans' coach Ben Josephson said, following his team's win. "We were clearly the older, more experienced, bigger, and stronger team but Mexico showed great system, great discipline, and great ball control and their decision-making of their hitters was spectacular. It's a great lesson for our team to learn how important skills are to play this game really well. I thought it was a tight match between a big, physical team and a great skill team. All the credit to Mexico for having great skills and patience."
Mexico's head coach Oscar Licea was happy with his team's peformance, despite the loss.
"This is about getting mature, and that is what we are looking for in preparation for the world championship," Licea said, "and even though we lost the fourth set, they went out to fight in the last one."
Mexico came out in the first set looking sharp and was clearly the better team as it snuck balls around, over, and through a Spartans' block that proved ineffective.
With an unmatched early energy, the visiting Mexicans were able to run away with a convincing 25-20 first set win.
In the second set, the Spartans showed more cohesion and started to slow Mexico's slick, quick-moving attack. But with TWU leading 24-21, Mexico suddenly came back in impressive fashion. The Mexicans earned five points in a row to stun the Spartans and take a 2-0 set advantage with a 26-24 win.
However, with the Spartans starting to find their system, they took over in the third and fourth sets with dominant performances. In the third set, with the score 18-16 for the Spartans, Trinity Western pulled away, finishing on a 7-2 run to earn its first set of the tournament.
Then, with momentum in their corner, the Spartans were too much for Mexico in the fourth set as they were the better team throughout and sent the match to a fifth set with a 12-point win.
In the fifth set, the teams went back and forth until 9-9. But with a single point, the Spartans made it 10-9 and possessed the lead the rest of the way as they eked out the 15-13 win.
"It was interesting for us. We came out really tight and pretty nervous," Trinity Western's Jarrod Offereins said. "We didn't bring a lot of energy and we were inside our own heads and weren't able to get into a good rhythm."
Offereins, the Spartans' captain, gave the Mexican players credit for their ability to play sound volleyball.
He added, "It was nice for us to regain that focus and energy as a team. We had some big guys step up. Brad Kufske and Nick [Del Bianco] stepped up energy-wise and play-wise, and allowed us to get back into the match. We got back to simple volleyball and that was key for us."
Mexico captain Lopez noted, "I want to congratulate Canada for the victory. We went out to play our best match and play one point at a time. I know we did our best, but things didn't go right at the end."
TWU resumes play tonight (Thursday) against the Dominican Republic. Game time is 8 p.m. at the LEC.
To buy tickets for the cup, go to www.langleyeventscentre.com or drop by the TWU Bookstore on the Trinity Western University campus.
About the U-23 Pan Am Cup
The U-23 Pan American Cup is a new competition created jointly by the NORCECA (North America, Central America & Caribbean) and the South American Volleyball Confederations, and features the top teams from these zones.
The event was developed to provide an additional competitive opportunity for developing national team players who may be on the cusp of making their first appearances with their respective country's senior level national teams.
Athletes must be born in 1990 or later to be eligible to compete.