By Martin Cleary
The heat outside these days in Ottawa is stifling, not fit for man or beast or even volleyball players.
Imagine playing elite-level volleyball inside a gymnasium, which has no air conditioning. The temperature inside the gym is the same as the sweltering temperature outside.
Kanata’s Devin Cooney doesn’t have to imagine those frightening conditions as he lived through those sweaty situations playing for Canada at last month’s U21 Pan American Cup men’s volleyball tournament in Havana, Cuba.
“The experience taught me to prepare mentally and physically for competition in various environments as the temperature within the gym reached 40°C at times,” Cooney recently wrote in an email interview.
Dealing with oppressive temperatures was one of the many lessons Cooney learned from his first national team experience, which also earned him a medal as Canada took the Pan Am Cup bronze for the second time in a row.
Canada went undefeated in its preliminary pool, beating Puerto Rico 26-28, 27-25, 22-25, 25-19, 19-17, Haiti 25-19, 25-17, 25-22, and Dominican Republic 25-17, 25-14, 25-22.
In the playoffs, Canada went 1-1, losing its semifinal to the United States 25-17, 25-21, 21-25, 25-16, but capturing the third-place match for the bronze by defeating Puerto Rico 25-15, 25-21, 21-25, 25-16.
The five-match international championship was an all-around learning experience for Cooney, 20, as he saw floor time against Puerto Rico and Haiti in the preliminary round.
In the three-hour, three-minute opening match against Puerto Rico, Cooney entered the second set as a sub. But he made a good impression against Haiti. After stepping onto the floor as a first-set sub, he played the entire second and third sets and counted seven points, including one from a block, as well as 19 total attempts based on five attacks, three faults and 11 shots.
“I thought I played very well with minimum errors, but I was battling an injury with my abdominal (region) and found it difficult to serve and attack,” continued Cooney, who played the left side and opposite positions for Canada.
“I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to play in one of the matches at the Pan Am Cup. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to represent my country and play with an extremely talented bunch of athletes.”
During his freshman season (2022-23) with the Badgers men’s volleyball team at Brock University, Cooney was invited to try out for the Canadian men’s U21 team. He sent video clips and highlights of his season to the national team coaching staff, which selected 28 players for the tryouts.
The coaches pared the roster to 16 players and took a dozen players to Havana for the Cup. Immediately after that Americas competition, the Canadian team resumed training for the world men’s U21 championships, which begin Friday in Manama, Bahrain.
The Canadian team roster for the world championships was released Wednesday, but didn’t include Cooney. Canada will play Bulgaria in its opening match, Poland on Saturday and India on Sunday. The playoff picture will be determined by the preliminary-round results.
“Playing in Cuba with some of the best players in the world was an amazing experience and invigorated me to work even harder to improve my game,” added Cooney, a product of seven seasons in the Ottawa Fusion Volleyball Club system.
“It was a complete privilege to represent our country, and the bronze medal was the cherry on the cake. We were disappointed we lost to the USA in the semifinals, but I was really proud of our team that we battled and won the bronze medal.”
After graduating from A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, Cooney enrolled at Brock for media and communications studies and played for the Badgers volleyball team.
He had an outstanding season, playing in 16 of the 20 OUA regular-season matches as Brock finished 11th overall in the standings at 8-12. He praised the coaching staff, which was led by head coach Matt Ragogna, and the team’s culture, which allowed for a smooth transition to the university game from the club level and saw him become a vital team player in the second-half of the OUA season.
“The culture at Brock was incredible and made me feel welcome and part of the family from the start of the season,” Cooney wrote. “I was fortunate to get some playing time, which allowed me to show what I could do with the support of my teammates.
“Overcoming nerves and playing in some important matches contributed to the preparation for the junior national team tryout camp (as well as) being able to train with really skilled athletes on both my team and others.”
Cooney’s on-court performances were noticed as he was named to the OUA and U Sports all-rookie teams. At the Brock athletic awards ceremony, he earned Emerging Badger recognition for the men’s volleyball team.
He concluded his first OUA season with six consecutive double-digit efforts in kills and points as the Badgers won four of those matches. The highlight was a 20.5-point outing against the Waterloo Warriors in early February as he registered 19 kills, one service ace and one block assist.
Cooney also ranked second on the Badgers in points per set (2.83) and kills per set (2.55). He averaged 1.05 digs per set as well.
“Going into the tryout process, I didn’t have any expectations of making the roster,” Cooney said in a Brock athletics press release. “I just wanted to play loose, learn new things and have fun playing high-level volleyball.
“I’m really fortunate to have made a team of this caliber with the best of the best at my age group and I am thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Cooney made Brock history as the first Badger to be named to the national men’s junior volleyball team and the second, after Logan House, to flow into the national-team pathway.
“This is a big step for Devin joining the U21 junior national team,” Ragogna said in a press release. “His commitment to better himself and those around him is a testament to his work ethic and drive to constantly reach new levels.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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