Londoner TJ Sanders takes leader role in Canada’s surging national volleyball team

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Beating the superpowers of world volleyball should no longer elicit shock and surprise.

Get used to it, Canada.

“This isn’t a fluke,” said setter TJ Sanders, back home in London after conducting the men’s national team to a historic bronze medal at the World League’s Final Six tournament in Curitiba, Brazil, this past week. “Beating Russia and the U.S. (in the medal round), we’ve beaten the Americans four of our last five meetings and people are saying, ‘No way’. Squad for squad, we’re the ones with the upper hand now and it’s an insane shift from when I started with the program.

“We’re comfortable winning and we’re expecting it, even against Brazil, the world’s No. 1.”

Sanders finished the event, statistically, as the top-ranked ball mover. The 25-year-old considers this the best tournament he has played for Canada — even above last year’s Olympic breakthrough in Rio.

“I’m thrilled with how it’s working and taking on the role as an older guy,” he said. “I’ve played the most games next to Gord-o (Perrin). I enjoy helping the younger guys because, really, I was just there not long ago.”

Sanders has helped navigate some key changes in the program this season.

Longtime coach Glenn Hoag gave way to former French star Stephane Antiga, a legend in Europe who led Poland to a world championship three years ago. If Canada wasn’t on the cusp of something special, they don’t hire someone of his quality.

“He was a player not too long ago,” Sanders said. “He’s 41, he brings an energy and he’s big on innovation. If we have a practice and I decide I want to try something new and it keeps working, he’ll praise that. He’s always got a ball in his hand at practice and wanting us to play games and stay competitive. His volleyball IQ is insane and he knows what he’s doing.”

In the wake of go-to hitter Gavin Schmitt’s post-Olympic retirement, Canada added high-leaping Scarborough teenager Sharone Vernon-Evans to the mix. The kid wasn’t just a positive contributor — he established himself as one of the game’s future stars.

“He’s a freak,” Sanders said. “He’s coming from playing with 18-year-olds, but the fact he played every game for us and was getting us points, it’s insane. The potential is like something I’ve never seen before. I can’t even fathom having his physical specs and ball control.

“When your biggest gun retires, we shifted what we do as a team. But in time, Sharone will be untouchable at his jumping height. At the end of sets, you wonder if he would be nervous because it’s natural. But he surprised me. I’m not shy giving him the ball.”

Sanders was particularly pleased to avenge the Olympic playoff loss to the Russians. And the deeper they went, it felt like the Canadians became fan favourites for the Brazilian faithful.

“Every game, it takes two seconds to get one wave and pump them up because they’re just waiting to dance and yell for something,” he said. “After the Russian game, we went in front of the crowd and started a slow clap. Then, the fans started doing that for us during the (U.S. match) bronze game.

“We were having a blast out there.”

The rest of the summer is a rather quiet one for Sanders and the Canadians. They have a tournament in Poland and then will play in the NORCECA championships at the end of September in Colorado Springs.

Then, Sanders will join his new pro club — Lotos Trefl Gdansk — in northern Poland on the heels of a second-place Turkish league finish last year with Arkas Spor.

“The Polish league is great,” he said. “It’s super-deep and they keep adding teams because of its popularity. The top eight are world class and it’ll be intense.”

And back home, he hopes the momentum of recent national success continues to build.

“At the Olympics, people got to see we’re kind of for real,” Sanders said, “and it was important to follow that with another good showing. If we had a whatever season, maybe people think Rio was our peaking moment.

“But I don’t see us tapering off or hitting a plateau anytime soon.”

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