Captain’s Analysis: Men’s volleyball maestro Jack Butcher reports on a difficult day for his team at the England Student Cup
Sunday proved a frustrating day for the men’s volleyball team as we failed to progress through the qualifying round of the Volleyball England Student Cup. Being the only first division team in our pool, we travelled to Leeds with the confidence that, if we played to our potential, we could make it through to the National Finals Day in February. But from the very first point of the day, against a Teeside team completely undeserving of their lower division status, we found ourselves on the back foot.
With only the top team from each group guaranteed qualification, it was vital to get off to a quick start but we had barely stepped off the bus (which was delayed due to overnight snow) before we found ourselves on court against our toughest opponents of the day. With no time for a proper warm up and with most of our team looking half asleep, Teeside opened up a 5-point lead from the start due to some powerful spiking from all areas of the court from their big middle-hitter. Despite a few promising attacks of our own, predominantly through outside-hitter Luca Accorsi, our defence was too flat footed and never really came to terms with the unexpected power and guile of the Teeside attack.
After surrendering the first set 25-16, we started the second in much the same vein as the first, quickly finding ourselves trailing. With a relatively inexperienced team this year and having only played a handful of games together, our confidence was notably lacking and we never really looked like fighting our way back into the match. With a 2-0 straight sets defeat, our chances of winning our group took a huge setback and meant that only comprehensive victories in both of our remaining matches would leave us with any chance of qualification.
To the team’s credit, our second match against Liverpool John Moores opened up with a reversal of our first game and saw us build a significant advantage from the first whistle. In an example of the importance of creating your own atmosphere and momentum in multi-game tournaments, confidence visibly came flowing back as we piled on the points. Every aspect of our performance improved from the first pass to the spike. Middle hitters Janis Koknevics and Pietro Galli benefited from some improved setting and started consistently killing the ball into the opponents court while the defence of opposite Josh Chipman and libero Lukas Thoeni ensured that LJM got no easy points.
Having blown them away in the first set 25-10, we recovered from a shaky start in the second to gradually ease away from a disheartened Liverpool outfit. Wrapping up a straight sets triumph with a 25-17 score line, we knew that the impressive manner of our victory had done our points difference no harm and given us every chance to qualify as the “best runner-up” if we could repeat the performance against Sussex in our final game.
It quickly became clear that Sussex’s attack was based around two key players who had an amazing ability to both blast through any weaknesses in the block and subtly place the ball into the gaps in our court. However we now had the distinct advantage of having found our own rhythm and adapted quickly to the new threat. With an effective 3-man-block generally nullifying their main threats, we started using some intelligent ball placement of our own, particularly by outside-hitter Michal Kovac. With a ruthless streak becoming evident in our play, we closed out a first set of genuine quality, 25-21.
Unfortunately in the second set, our inexperience as individuals and as a team once again shone through. Failing to maintain the newfound intensity in our game, and letting some dubious refereeing decisions affect our concentration, we failed to deliver on the crucial points and the confidence started to evaporate as Sussex surged into the lead. By losing the second set 25-20, our chance of qualification as “best runner-up” was effectively ended and this disappointment was reflected in a disjointed deciding-set display. Despite some excellent work once again by Kovac, we failed to deliver on the big points and ended up losing 15-9. It was a thoroughly disappointing end to a frustrating day but we need quickly to learn some important lessons and take some valuable experience from the tournament as an intensely packed BUCS league programme unfolds in the next few weeks.