Canadian national sitting volleyball team hosts T-Birds in exhibition

Last Friday, amidst the Easter celebrations, the UBC Thunderbirds squared off against the Canadian men’s national sitting volleyball team for a sitting volleyball exhibition match at the Richmond Olympic Oval. Sadly, the west coast has been largely unexposed to the sport, and most people are completely unaware that it even exists.

While similar on a lot of fronts, sitting volleyball feels like a different sport from traditional volleyball. It retains most of the key features that make it volleyball such as having six players on each team and the goal of making the ball land in the opponent’s side. But unlike traditional volleyball, each player is not allowed to leave a sitting position. For this reason, the net is shorter and the court is smaller.

During the game, players have to stay alert and need to be able to act quickly. It can also be more tactical and precise than the traditional game, given the smaller court and the shorter net. It’s difficult to hit the ball without jumping, keep it in play without slamming it, harder to dig when you cannot dive after the ball and harder to set when you are glued to the floor. This makes each set fast, nasty and brutish.

“Just like any game that you need technique, I have a lot of respect for this game. It is still a very technical game and I think that the best in the world play at a very high level,” said T-Birds head coach Richard Schick.

The game last week was a form of practice for Team Canada as they prepared for the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games this August, which is a qualifier for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The aim for Team Canada is to qualify both the men’s and women’s teams this year. The game also served to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Volleyball BC as well expose sitting volleyball to the Lower Mainland and the community.

“As a Paralympic sport, sitting volleyball is apparently quite popular due to the fast-paced game play and it’s an exciting sport to watch, but it is not well-known among the general public and currently there are not a lot of opportunities available at the grassroots level,” said Donna Lee, the 50th anniversary initiatives coordinator for Volleyball BC.

“Hopefully these events spark some interest in the sport and inspire some community programs.”

Both the men’s and women’s sitting volleyball teams have fared well -- in fact, excelled -- in the Parapan Games since they started competing. Due to expenses, the teams do not compete in many international competitions, especially as a lot of them take place in Europe. But for the ones close to home, both teams have been impressive.

“In zonal competitions, our men’s national team is two-time Parapan Am bronze medalists in 2007 and 2011, as well as the 2013 Pan Am Championship bronze medalists. Our women’s national team won bronze in the 2011 Pan Am Championships,” said Ian Halliday, the high performance director for Team Canada.

Schick added that the exhibition match was also partly a product of a relationship between Team Canada and the Thunderbirds. That line of contact was Austin Hinchey.

Now the current captain of Team Canada, Hinchey played for the Thunderbirds as their setter for two of his years of eligibility, before heading back to Edmonton where he graduated this year. And in that time, he got close to many of the players and introduced them to the sport.

He also lived with fifth-year libero Ian Perry during his time at UBC.

“We had a couple people that all lived in the same house together and it was nice to be able to live with those people and just develop more of a personal relationship, rather than just a teammate relationship,“ said Perry.

Team Canada plays at the international level in a sport that anyone would find difficult, so they unsurprisingly had the upper hand, pretty much putting the ‘Birds to the wall for the entire game. However, UBC fought back at several near-impossible moments and proved that they were not a team that could be bullied. In the end, Team Canada won the game in five sets, but with a close final set score of 15-13.

It was really interesting seeing the ‘Birds take on an international team in such a difficult sport and hold their own. In fact, at several points in the game, especially in the last set, it was beginning to look like T-Birds could win.

“Anytime you get these guys together against any university team, any high level competing team, and you get them playing anything, there is going to be a compete level. Whether [it's] Go Fish, or if it’s memory or whatever, they all want to win,” said Schick