Trinity Western, Laval vie for national title

Spartan middle hitter Rudy Verhoeff celebrates after a point in Trinity Western's straight-set blowout of the Gaels.
Spartan middle hitter Rudy Verhoeff celebrates after a point in Trinity Western's straight-set blowout of the Gaels.
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Laval Rouge et Or outside hitter Karl De Grandpré celebrates one of his 25 kills against the Manitoba Bisons during his team's CIS semifinal win on Saturday night.
Laval Rouge et Or outside hitter Karl De Grandpré celebrates one of his 25 kills against the Manitoba Bisons during his team's CIS semifinal win on Saturday night.
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The Trinity Western Spartans are used to being the best.

The defending CIS champions have been Canada’s top-ranked team for the entire season and are the favourites heading into Sunday’s national men’s volleyball gold medal game against the Laval Rouge et Or.

But they were underdogs back in October — while other CIS teams were still playing exhibition games, the Spartans were representing Canada at the Club World Championship in Doha, Qatar. They went 1-2 against some of the world’s top professional teams.

“It was like playing the L.A. Lakers,” outside hitter Rudy Verhoeff said. “We got to see another level … and that’s what we’ve worked for the whole season.”

Against Russia’s Zenit Kazan and Poland’s KS Jastrzebski Wiegel, the Spartans got to see bigger, stronger and smarter players — Verhoeff said that experience paid off in Saturday’s semifinal win over the Queen’s Gaels.

“We learned the very little things … hand contact and two-ball setting is just so vital,” he said. “And I think you could see [that was] the difference between us and Queen’s.”

Trinity Western is a Christian university with full member status in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada — the Spartans pray together before each game. Verhoeff said his team has a bigger purpose than winning the national championship.

“To win is awesome, that’s our goal,” he said. “But we want to play the game well, we want to glorify God in the ways that we can.”

The Spartans coasted to a straight-set victory over the Gaels in front of 1,994 fans at the ARC on Saturday.

“We had good execution,” head coach Ben Josephson said. “We wanted to serve tough, we wanted to pass well, and I thought we did both.”

The Spartans will face a sterner test on Sunday against the Rouge et Or.

Laval, the Quebec conference champions and Canada’s only undefeated team, are coming off a four-set semifinal win over the second-seeded Manitoba Bisons.

“What [Rouge et Or coach Pascal Clément] has done with the program is unbelievable,” Josephson said, “especially considering half their games [in Quebec] aren’t as tough as what we play out west.”

CIS top scorer and three-time Quebec MVP Karl De Grandpré posted 25 kills against the Bisons, including 18 in the final two sets. On Saturday, Josephson called De Grandpré the "best player in the country right now.”

Spartans setter and CIS MVP Ben Ball said his team has to serve tough to neutralize De Grandpré.

“If we pull them off the net with our serve, we’re going to be able to put up two or three solid blocks for him,” Ball said. “If he’s hitting on a one-man block, it’s pretty much a kill every time.”

Rouge et Or head coach Pascal Clement said De Grandpré – a five-year starter – is one of the top three Rouge et Or players in the past 20 years.

“He’s not a vocal leader, he’s a leader when he hits the ball like he did against Manitoba,” Clément said. “25 kills, that’s a leader.”

De Grandpré started slowly against the Bisons, recording only seven kills in the first two sets against an aggressive defence. Clément said he had to switch up his team’s offensive strategy to get his star player involved in the game.

“I told our setter to play faster with the other guys, but slower with Karl,” he said. “It worked.”

Last time the Rouge et Or played Trinity Western, they lost 3-2 in a national semifinal in 2009. Clément said the Spartans are the best team in the country.

“They’re a very balanced team, lots of guys have international experience, they play all year in a good schedule,” he said. “They’re going to be tough.”

The national gold medal game starts at 4 p.m. at the ARC.

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