Volleyball partnerships face ultimate test

Manitoba beach teams aiming high at Canada Summer Games


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Erika Vermette and Val Gonzalez have been beach volleyball teammates for more than three years and friends for longer than that.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/08/2022 (228 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Erika Vermette and Val Gonzalez have been beach volleyball teammates for more than three years and friends for longer than that.

Their tight bond has endured through the years and beginning Monday, the partnership will be put to the test at the Canada Summer Games.

Vermette, a 21-year-old from Morris, and 18-year-old Gonzalez, a Winnipegger, have carefully plotted out their training regimen and hope that diligence will result in a podium finish at Canada Games Park in St. Catherines, Ont.

Play begins Monday and continues until Saturday’s medal games.

“We’ve worked really hard this summer,” said Gonzalez earlier this week. “We’ve worked out and thought about maybe not going certain places at certain times and really restricting ourselves for the best performance we can have. So I think we’ll put it all out there…

“Our goal is to medal. Manitoba has never medalled on the beach at the Summer Games.”

The 5-11 Vermette, a left side during the indoor season with the UBC Thunderbirds, and Gonzalez, a 5-3 attacker indoors with the Université de Saint-Boniface Les Rouges, have a distinct division of labour on the beach.

“Sometimes there’s a designated defender and a designated blocker and sometimes you’ll have two taller players that split block,” said Vermette, who will also serve as Manitoba’s flag-bearer at Sunday’s opening ceremony. “We mostly have me blocking and Val’s defending. But when I serve she will block just to give me a break from sprinting to the net.”

The duo claimed gold at the 2019 Western Canada Games in Swift Current, Sask., and their coach Chloe Reimer-McCaughan has been impressed with their chemistry.

“It’s one thing to like each other but sometimes if you like each other too much, you’re afraid to hurt each other’s feelings,” said Reimer-McCaughan. “When you actually have really good team chemistry, like Val can coach Erika through something and Erika can coach Val through something, because on the court, they’re each other’s coaches. And that’s the best kind of team chemistry that you can have.”

Reimer-McCaughan said the unique requirements of the beach game require makes her job must different than that of an indoor volleyball coach.

By rule, the beach game is viewed as an individual sport and coaches can warm their players up but must be seated 10 minutes before agame, unable to say or do anything for the duration.

“How I focus all of my training is to ask questions for them to kind of foster their own game plan their own strategies,” said Reimer-McCaughan. “What do you do because there are no subs, for example? In indoor volleyball, if you’re not playing so well the coach can take you off here.

“Here, there’s nowhere to hide, right? You keep playing despite the obstacles. So by coaching them to become their own coaches, they can hopefully build the mental toughness to work through those difficult times.”

Fitness, naturally, is a major factor for success on the beach.

“It’s definitely harder going from indoor to beach but a lot easier going from beach to indoor just because beach requires a lot more cardio,” said Vermette. “So when you get to the sand, it takes a few practices to get back into it.”

Avoiding injury, especially in training, is crucial since teams are not allowed alternates or substitutes. Vermette has had concussions issues stemming from being hit by a volleyball.

“We definitely do try to like restrict ourselves during practice,” said Gonzalez. “Erica does have a little bit of an (injury situation). No more concussions for her. We do tell her, you know, it’s not a game you don’t need to hurt your head or anything.”

Meanwhile, Manitoba’s men will also be chasing a medal at the Games after claiming gold as a team at the 2019 Western Canada Games.

Justin Cross, a 19-year-old, and fellow Winnipegger Isaiah Olfert, 21, are both 6-4 and could easily be mistaken for brothers. The similar body types mean they have a less conventional approach to tactics.

“I think that’s honestly an advantage for us,” said Cross. “We both go up to the net and block. So we split block. I’d say it’s a little unconventional, but you’re seeing it more on the AVP (pro) tour now.

“I think it’s good because it gives the opponent a different look. They’re not hitting against the same blocker every time. So we can kind of do a bunch of different things to give the opponent different looks and make them uncomfortable.”

Both Cross, who will start his second year at Dalhousie University this fall, and Olfert, a two-year veteran outside at Trinity Western University, are both seasoned indoor players.

“I’m kind of a Swiss Army knife,” said Cross. “I tend to play everything. Last season. I played the left side. I played a little bit of a libero, a little bit of right side but mainly left side. Okay. I think I might be setting next season as well.”

Cross and Olfert, fast friends off the sand, will have to summon all of their team chemistry to be successful at the Games. Ontario and B.C., provinces with beach volleyball programs much bigger than Manitoba’s, are likely to be favoured in St. Catherines.

“That’s kind of what the consensus is but, I don’t really view us as an underdog,” said Cross.” I think everybody’s got to step on the court and play the game and the winner is the winner… I think we can beat anybody that’s going to be there.”


Twitter @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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