Ottawa, ON – If anyone in North America knows how to win in men’s volleyball, it’s Ben Josephson.
The head coach of the Trinity Western Spartans of Canada West since 2007, Josephson has amassed a trophy case that few can rival, with Canada West titles in 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020, along with U SPORTS national titles in 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, and 2019.
That resume is part of what brought Volleyball Canada to name him the new head coach of the Senior Men’s National Program back in November of 2021.
Coming off a second straight Olympic appearance in Tokyo, where the program finished 8th (following up a 5th place finish in Rio, which was the first appearance for Canada since 1992), previous head coach Glenn Hoag stepped down. Looking for the voice to help take the next step forward, Volleyball Canada turned to Josephson, hoping his pedigree at the university level could carry forward to the national level.
The first round of the 2022 FIVB Men’s Nations League was his first challenge. Canada’s best finish in the tournament was seventh in 2018, and with a week on home soil, it would be an excellent first look at the next era of men’s volleyball for Canada.
The result? A 1-3 finish in the standings is not ideal. Still, through four games at The Arena at TD Place, Canada showed that while they may not be at the level of the Olympic medal favourites in France or Italy, tangible, concrete steps are being taken to help them get there.
The Team Canada that took the court in Ottawa saw a mix of national team veterans, but also new faces to the international program. Nicholas Hoag, a nation team member since 2013 and currently playing professionally with Arkas Spor Kulübü in Turkey was named as team captain. He was joined by former Olympians and U SPORTS almuni, Jay Blankenau (MRU/Calgary) , Stephen Maar (McMaster), Ryan Sclater (Trinity Western) and Lukas Van Berkel (Trinity Western).
All told seven current or former members of the Spartans were named to Team Canada for Week One. Jesse Elger, Brodie Hofer, Jackson Howe, Mathias Elser, Ryan Sclater, Pearson Eshenko, and Lucas Van Berkel. This isn’t just a case of Josephson leaning on players he’s comfortable with although the comfort level is something he’ll acknowledge.
“They have a way head start because they understand my methodology to coaching, my language, a lot of the systems we’re implementing are things they have seen some version of in the past,” Josephson said.
“Whether they are our best players or not remains to be seen, what they are is they help us integrate the system faster.”
Tuesday night’s opener saw a Canadian team that looked overmatched against Germany. Canada did force the third set past 25, eventually dropping it 30-28, but they had already dropped the first two sets 25-19 and 25-20.
For Josephson, it was a deep dive into the reality of coaching at the international level.
“The higher level you go and the more the stakes go up, the more it hurts to lose because now we’re trying to represent a nation, not a club or a university,” Josephson said. “So it hurts to lose; it hurts way worse than I thought it would.”
Playing with a new offensive system in a live game for the first time was a difficult night for Canada, who gave up 26 errors and 41 attack points. “I think if we can clean up our execution and our receptions, we can be very deadly to a lot of teams or at least harder to play against.” captain Nicholas Hoag said.
The second game for Canada saw them taking on the defending Olympic Gold Medallists in France. On the scoreboard, the results looked pretty similar to Tuesday as France took the relatively clean sweep 25-16, 25-23, 25-21. Look beyond the score, and it was clear that Canada was starting to see signs of progress.
The best example came from Stephen Maar. The 27-year-old 2020 Olympian and 2016 CIS Champion with the McMaster Marauders had a second consecutive strong night for Team Canada with 12 points as he stepped firmly into a leadership role with almost half the roster 23 and under.
“I’ve been telling the younger guys, you can do what you’re good at right now, and you can maybe make a VNL roster right now, or you can do the stuff that’s uncommon; you can maybe make an Olympic roster,” Maar said post-game.
One night later, it was yet another 3-0 loss as Canada was dominated on the attack by Italy, losing 47-27 in attacks and falling (25-21, 25-18, 25-19) in the match. For the first time in the week, frustration seemed to be creeping in.
“If we knew a better course, we would have been on that one; this is the course we think is right,” Josephson said. “Once you take a big bite of steak, you just gotta chew through it, not worth spitting it out, so just keep chewing it till it’s gone.”
Finally, the Volleyball Nations League finale in Ottawa saw the only two winless teams in Bulgaria and Canada square off in a Sunday afternoon matchup to end the week. Canada finally broke through, winning the first two sets 25-18 each before dropping sets three and four 26-24 and 25-21.
“I think it’s always one set at a time; I think it’s almost one point at a time,” Josephson said following the match the previous night against Italy.
“We play this thing called point match, every point is its own little match, you’re excited or sad if you win it or lose it, you figure out what went right and what went wrong, you formulate a plan, then you play the next one.”
The two sides battled to 10-10 in set five, but eventually, it was Ryan Sclater who sent an ace through that gave Canada the 15-11 win and the 3-2 win in the game for their first win in Nations League 2022.
It can’t be said that Canada had a perfect week in Ottawa; nine consecutive set losses make that impossible. However, Canada did have in Ottawa a week of growth. Each sweep, despite the losses, saw a Canadian team that looked more confident. It all culminated in Sunday’s showdown with Bulgaria that tested Canada’s mettle for the first time.
With Canada at match point in the third set up 24-23, Ryan Sclater sent the potential winner wide down the right side, and Bulgaria came back to win the set. Even after losing set four, the Canadians didn’t break, and they held on for the win.
So was it a perfect week? No.
It was a start, though, and as Canada embarks on its next chapter in indoor volleyball, that’s about as much as you can ask for.