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Canada's women's volleyball team battle for final Olympic berth

Nothing less than victory will get Canada's women's volleyball team to London.

The Canadians play Puerto Rico on Sunday to open the NORCECA Olympic qualifying tournament, a gruelling event that will see just one of the eight teams entered earn a ticket to the London Olympics.

"That's how it is," summed up coach Arnd Ludwig. "The girls know what's going on, they put their own pressure on themselves, but we just have to rely on our preparation. We had really good practices the last few weeks, good intense practices, and that's good reason to go into the games with self-confidence."

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The Canadians, ranked 22nd in the world, are gunning for their first Olympic berth since 1996, and just the second spot in London by a Canadian team of any sort. Women's soccer is the only Canadian team to have qualified thus far.

"Hopefully we'll be the next one," Ludwig said.

It won't be easy. Canada's in a pool with No. 9-ranked Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico (19) and Honduras (69).

The other pool has Cuba (10), Mexico (27), Costa Rica (28), and Trinidad & Tobago (34).

"Never mind the rankings, there's no team that can claim to be an overwhelming favourite," said Tammy Mahon, Canada's captain and an 11-year national team veteran. "No other team has done more than what we've done over the last year. We've had a great two weeks of training with the full team leading into this and we fresh and ready."

The Canadians have come close at past NORCECA qualifying tournaments, finishing runners-up for both the 2000 and 2008 Olympics.

Mahon, from Holland, Man., and Sarah Pavan, from Kitchener, Ont., are the veterans of the Canadian side. Pavan is coming off a strong professional season with Villa Cortese, leading her team to the final as the top scorer of the Italian league, considered the strongest women's pro league in the world.

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Pavan said Canada has a size advantage over its opponents, and is a strong blocking team.

"But a big key is the fact we are a team that has played together for awhile," Pavan said. "We've really stuck with it."

The Canadians' preparation for the tournament was pulled out from under them last fall, when the organizers postponed the event for six months due to financial issues in the host city.

"We hear in November it's going to be postponed, and that sucks," Ludwig said. "For the playing part, we just take it like it is. But it was tough for the girls, they didn't sign professional contracts this season because they thought they would be gone (for the qualifying tournament). It sucks for the girls who didn't get contracts at all."

Ludwig said that's ancient history now for a team with its sights set on London, and spirits are high heading into their opening game.

"We have a good mixture between young and old, it's a really good team chemistry that we have this year," the coach said. "It was fun the past few weeks to work with them. They're very focused and they know what they want."

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Canada plays the Dominican Republic on Monday, then Honduras on Tuesday before crossing over with the other pool.

Canada lost to the Dominican Republic in five sets, and lost to Cuba in straight sets at the Pan American Games last October in Mexico, but the team was missing Pavan.

The NORCECA final is May 5.

The Canadian men's team will play in its NORCECA Olympic qualification tournament May 7-12 in Long Beach, Calif.

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