First Alexa Gray, then Layne Van Buskirk and now Hilary Howe.
The outside hitter from Calgary was the offensive star in Canada’s upset five-set victory over reigning world champions Serbia on Sunday to conclude the first leg of women’s Volleyball Nations League play.
Howe scored a game-high 24 points in Canada’s second straight win in Antalya, Turkey. After opening the tourney with 37 points against Poland, outside hitter Alexa Gray added 23 in Sunday’s 18-25, 28-26, 25-23, 18-25, 15-12 verdict.
Van Buskirk, who led the team in scoring for a second straight day in Friday’s straight-sets win over Korea, recorded only one point Sunday on a block before head coach Shannon Winzer benched the native of Windsor, Ont., to start the second set.
The Canadians, who were playing their fourth game in six days, finished the opening leg of competition with a 2-2 record. Their next game is June 13 against China when play shifts to Hong Kong.
“We have a lot of confidence,” Howe said. “We’ve been building the last couple of years and showing we can compete against the best teams. I’m excited to see how we can finish the VNL.”
WATCH | Howe, Gray combine for 47 points in 5-set thriller vs. Serbia:
In Sunday’s tiebreaker, the teams exchanged points early until Howe took something off a shot to give Canada a 5-3 lead it increased to 7-3 on a Gray ace and Emily Maglio block, the 12th of the match for her team.
Howe extended the advantage to 10-6 before Serbia fought back with three of the next four points, prompting Winzer to call a timeout.
“We’re in full control here,” she told her players. “Let’s go back to [playing] simple.”
The Canadians went ahead 12-11 when Uzelac missed a cross-court hit but quickly pulled even.
Serbia forces 8 errors in 1st set
However, Gray put Canada up to stay with a kill for her 23rd and final point. On the ensuring play, top setter Brie King of Langley, B.C., forced the opposition to double touch and then Serbia lost a challenge for a block touch.
The second set was a turning point for Canada, which didn’t look good in dropping the opener, with Gray and Van Buskirk combining for five points and Serbia forcing eight errors.
We have to keep our foot on the pedal.— Canada head coach Shannon Winzer told her players during a 2nd-set timeout
After Serbia took a 3-1 lead, the Canadians went on a 12-6 run for a 13-9 advantage. But they couldn’t build on the four-point margin and Serbia later went up 20-19.
Canada was also struggling mightily at the service line, with Howe recording the team’s 11th service error on the day late in the set.
“We have to keep our foot on the pedal,” Winzer said during a Canada timeout.
Her charges responded with Gray delivering three consecutive points, but Serbia tied the set 22-22.
With Canada trailing 24-23, Howe answered with a deep kill but gave the Serbs a 26-25 lead on a missed hit. However, Serbia could close the set and the Canadians prevailed after blocks from Howe and King.
Strong blocking game
“In the first set we made a ton of unforced errors,” Winzer said during the broadcast. “If we can make less service errors in the third set, hopefully we can be cleaner [in our play].”
Canada held its own on serves in the third set and continued to play a strong blocking game while collecting seven points on Serbia errors.
Team captain Ana Bjelica and 18-year-old Aleksandra Uzelac had 18 points apiece to lead world No. 4 Serbia, which finished 0-4 in Turkey. Three others had at least 10, including Sara Lozo (16), Maja Aleksic (12) and Mina Popovic (10).
On Friday, Canada disposed of Korea in straight sets (25-17, 25-16, 25-18) for its first win of the season.
The victory provided a bounceback of sorts for the 15th-ranked squad, which previously dropped matches against Poland (No. 9) and Thailand (No. 14) while winning just a single set in the process.
WATCH | Canada blanks Korea:
This is the most pivotal VNL campaign for the Canadian women. It’s the start of Olympic qualifying season and the squad wants to use the 16-team competition as a springboard to Paris 2024.
The women’s finals will be held July 12-16 in Arlington, Texas.
WATCH: Canada’s women ready for another memorable run:
Canada finished with a 4-8 record last year, 12th in the overall standings. Italy was the overall women’s winner in 2022, followed by Brazil and Serbia.
The biggest moment for this year’s squad is the Sept. 16-24 Olympic qualifying tournament in China, where six of the 12 teams competing at Paris 2024 will be decided. Should Canada not qualify, it will have another shot based on world ranking.
CBC Sports and CBC Gem will have all of Canada’s 12 Volleyball Nations League games streamed live and CBC Sports Presents will have select games on the main CBC network beginning June 4.
- No. 4 — Vicky Savard, Jonquière, Que.
- No. 5 — Julia Murmann, Toronto
- No. 6 — Jazmine White, Oshawa, Ont.
- No. 7 — Layne Van Buskirk, Windsor, Ont.
- No. 9 — Alexa Gray, Calgary
- No. 11 — Andrea Mitrovic, Mississauga, Ont.
- No. 12 — Jennifer Cross, Scarborough, Ont.
- No. 13 — Brie King, Langley, B.C.
- No. 14 — Hilary Howe, Calgary
- No. 15 — Shaïnah Joseph, Ottawa, Ont.
- No. 16 — Caroline Livingston, Kelowna, B.C.
- No. 17 — Kacey Jost. St. Albert, Alta.
- No. 18 — Kim Robitaille, Repentigny, Que.
- No. 19 — Emily Maglio, Coquitlam, B.C.