05/15/2014 06:49 EDT | Updated 07/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada's men's and women's volleyball teams take aim at world championship spots

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Gavin Schmitt boasts one of the most lethal spikes in volleyball — so huge, it has been compared to Michael Jordan's famous dunk from the free-throw line.

His spike touch has been measured at 12 feet two inches, more than two feet above an NBA rim.

And yet while he's Canada's best player and a major star overseas, the 28-year-old from Saskatoon plays in relative obscurity here at home.

"It's starting to grow a little bit, but volleyball isn't a very popular sport in Canada in general, people don't know about it too much," Schmitt said Thursday at a Canadian team practice. "But it is growing, and it has been fun seeing the sport grow in Canada."

The six-foot-eight Schmitt will lead the Canadian men in the world championship qualifier this weekend at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont., another step in the team's quest for its first Olympic appearance since 1992.

Canada's men face Costa Rica, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago, while the Canadian women play Jamaica, Mexico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the tournament that is also a test event for next summer's Pan American Games in Toronto. The Canadians need to win the tournament to earn a berth in their respective world championships next fall.

The Canadian men are on the rise, finishing fifth in the prestigious 18-country World League last year to climb to No. 11 in the world rankings. That strong result came a year after they were just one win away from qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

This team is believed to have perhaps the best shot of any in recent memory to secure an Olympic berth — something only three Canadian teams have managed to do in the past 14 Olympic Games.

"That's kind of the dream, that's what you strive for. Not making it there would always be a big sore spot on the career," Schmitt said. "But it's also not the (end) all, be all. People also have great careers and never get to the Olympics. But that's why I'm here. That's why I come back and play every summer. It's the big reason why we play international volleyball."

Schmitt, who's played in 93 games for the national team, knows that with an Olympic appearance comes the exposure that his team is lacking at home.

"Look at women's soccer, they went to the Olympics and they had some results there, and now they have televised friendly matches," Schmitt said on Canada's team that won bronze in London.

Canada's upcoming games at home will help. The Canadian men open the world qualifying tournament Friday against Trinidad & Tobago, while the women open against Mexico. The finals are Monday.

The Canadian men also host several World League matches in Canada in the coming weeks, including two games in Calgary, two in Vancouver, and a pair in Edmonton.

Schmitt is back with the Canadian team after being sidelined with a serious shin injury last summer. He was diagnosed with nine small stress fractures in his left tibia, and one big one — an injury so severe that doctors said if he'd kept playing on it, he might have wound up like basketball's Kevin Ware, the former Louisville guard made famous by his gruesome broken leg during last year's March Madness.

"As with any athlete, I thought his injury was devastating," Schmitt said.

Schmitt now has a three-inch incision in his knee where a metal rod was inserted to stabilize his tibia. He was sidelined for four months and returned to play in January, with his pro club, Arkas Izmir of the Turkish League.

Schmitt came late to volleyball. He played basketball growing up, and was always tall for his age. He grew seven inches in his Grade 11 year. His mom urged him to try volleyball in Grade 12.

"Then I started to play at a club and in university (the University of Saskatchewan and Red Deer College). It was just a big snowball," Schmitt said. "I was still very basketball-oriented, but started volleyball and it was new, fun and exciting, and seemed to fit me pretty well and it took off from there."

The Canadian men are favoured to win the world qualifying tournament, and hope to top their performance at the 2010 world championships, where they recorded a major victory over Serbia, but just missed advancing out of the preliminary round and finished 19th.

Schmitt credits the hiring of Glenn Hoag as head coach in 2006 for turning around the Canadian men's program.

"He re-implemented how we play volleyball, putting systems in place, making us more disciplined, building a team culture so that when we come back from our pro seasons overseas, we come right back into Team Canada volleyball and doing what we're supposed to do," Schmitt said.

Hoag, who also coaches Schmitt's Turkish team Arkas Izmir in the winter, said he's seen his team take major steps toward improving over the last couple of years.

"Now we're more at the stage where we work on small things to make a difference, our serving game, for example, has to improve because the game is evolving worldwide and we need to follow and not lose touch," said Hoag, who coaches the Canadians out of their training base in Ottawa. "It's just polishing.

"And I wanted us to be innovators and not always us catching up, so that we can create our own style ... volleyball is a worldwide sport like soccer and basketball, it's very hard. There are a lot of good teams."

Canada's young women's team, meanwhile, is ranked 20th in the world and has its sights set more on the 2020 Olympics.

"We have a very young team this year, Rio is going to be very tough to qualify," said coach Arnd Ludwig. "I think we are doing everything right now to get there, but it's important that we keep this group together for the next Olympics for 2020, because it's a good core group with really young players. Volleyball players peak from 27 to 30 and most of these players are 22 to 24."

The Canadian women have only made three Olympic appearances in 14 Games, most recently in 1996. They finished 21st at the last world championships in 2010.

Ludwig noted his team his team is excited about the weekend, as it rarely plays international games in Canada outside of Winnipeg, where the women are based.

"I wish we could play more games in Canada, to be seen all over Canada," the coach said. "The players love to play here in Canada. They're really looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd this weekend."

Follow @Ewingsports on Twitter.