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Disappointing Blues fail to pass the test and finish eighth
In a frustrating weekend, Cambridge University Men's volleyball team lost all four of their matches to finish eighth in the BUSA National Finals competition. Although placing in the top eight in the country represented an achievement bettered only once in the history of the Club, the general feeling amongst the squad was one of under-achievement and unfulfilled promise.
Again the Blues' journey to a tournament venue was far from straightforward, as middle blocker Soren Koeppe failed to arrive at the meeting point at the appointed time, finally ringing up coach Dr Richard White to announce that he had only just woken up. The teams therefore left Cambridge some 45 minutes later than planned, and were further delayed by long tailbacks caused by a serious accident on the A14. Despite these early mishaps, the convoy of vehicles arrived at Loughborough with some ten minutes to spare.
Cambridge were drawn in a pool with Leeds (winners of the Northern conference), Portsmouth (winners of the Western conference) and, of course, Sheffield Hallam. Richard White and Dan Escott, veterans of the 1999 Cambridge side which had placed 3rd in the BUSA finals, sensed a strong feeling of déjà vu; the squads were staying in the same B&B as had the Men two years previously and, as in '99, the Blues' first match on the Friday evening would be against Hallam.
The Blues were buoyed by the news that Alex Porter, Hallam's star opposite hitter, was injured and would only make an appearance as libero (at 2.05m, surely the tallest player ever to play that position...). Nevertheless he had been replaced by another in the Sheffield programme's seemingly endless supply of power hitters, a luxury not afforded to Cambridge. The Blues squad included Jean-Rene Huynh, the hardest hitter on the team, but were missing Steffen Krusch and Marko Jauhiainen to injury, and Max Bautin due to work commitments. Opposite hitter Andreas Malm was also struggling with a back injury which hindered his hitting approach, and Quentin Ramasse had sustained a neck injury making him doubtful for the early matches.
Blues 1-2 Sheffield Hallam (25-18, 21-25, 13-15)
Cambridge lined up with Denis Zuev setting, Jean-Rene Huynh opposite, Dan Escott and Soren Koeppe as middle blockers and Jean Jacquet and Richard Weinberg as outside hitters. Huw Vater rounded out the side as libero. Hallam left two key hitters on the bench to begin with, but a poor start from the Blues saw the Yorkshire side make the early running to lead 11-10. Thereafter, however, some solid passing from Weinberg enabled Escott to torture a weak Hallam middle block, whilst Weinberg himself contributed a series of unstoppable kills. With Cambridge 19-15 ahead, Hallam subbed in their strongest side, but to no avail; having identified the weaker passer, the Blues served him mercilessly to force a series of hitting errors and take the set 25-18.
Unchanged for set two, the Blues were again the better side as they assumed a 10-7 advantage. However the failings of the EVA Finals returned to haunt them, as a run of woeful passes in one rotation prevented Cambridge from mounting any meaningful attacks, whilst Hallam racked up six points without reply. Despite some accurate serving from Escott and penetrating hitting from Huynh, more dreadful passing restricted setter Zuev's options and gave the defending champions the chance to win points on the counter-attack. The set was lost 25-21.
The tiebreak set saw no improvement from the Blues. Despite some outstanding attacking from Weinberg, bad passes frequently prevented Cambridge from mounting any attack at all as they slumped to 5-10. The match looked to be over, but the Blues clawed their way back to 13-13 through some probing serving from Jacquet coupled with fearless transition attacking from Escott and Huynh. Hallam sided-out, but the match was to end in controversial fashion as an outside attack from Weinberg seemed to have drawn a touch from the block before grounding out of bounds. After protests, the referees finally disagreed, and the match was Hallam's.
Retiring to their B&B for takeaway food and beers, the team were disappointed at having lost so narrowly, but confident that a similar performance would be sufficient to defeat Leeds and Portsmouth. A bonus for the side was that Ramasse's troublesome neck had improved and that he would be available for the Saturday matches.
Blues 0-2 Portsmouth (26-28, 15-25)
Starting with the same side that had faced Hallam, Cambridge overturned an early 4-1 Portsmouth lead through some typically destructive Escott fast attacks and strong blocking from Koeppe to lead 16-11. But then the passing disintegrated once more; over the next six points, the Blues were only able to mount two genuine attacks, and those on exit sets to the outside. The rest of the services resulted in either aces, or near-shanks which Zuev could only bump up for a freeball. The set therefore quite needlessly became a tight struggle, and Portsmouth finally edged it 28-26.
Set two saw what was comfortably Cambridge's worst display of the season. The reception deteriorated to such an extent that the Blues were only able to set their first tempo attack three times in the whole game. Some tremendous power attacks from Jean-Rene Huynh and Quentin Ramasse, who replaced Jacquet, kept Portsmouth in sight early on, but thereafter Cambridge were unable to offer any form of attack. The south coast side feasted ruthlessly on the steady stream of freeballs that had to be bumped over, and the final result was a humiliating, but unfortunately wholly deserved 25-15 to Portsmouth.
Cambridge's chances of qualifying for the semi-finals had now all but disappeared, but as they watched Hallam defeat Leeds 2-0, they realised that, if they could beat Leeds 2-0, and Hallam defeated Portsmouth by the same scoreline, it would be Cambridge who would take second place on sets won. The side took to the court to face Leeds with at least a small glimmer of hope.
Blues 1-2 Leeds (25-23, 22-25, 7-15)
The Blues' passing unit, with Ramasse now on court, showed slightly more stability, but Cambridge were nevertheless indebted to a superb display from Rich Weinberg through the outside to keep them in the hunt as Leeds began confidently. The Northerners struggled against the jump serves of Zuev and Huynh, and solo stuff blocks from Weinberg and Escott allowed the Blues to snatch game one 25-23.
Set two saw Weinberg, Huynh and Jacquet (replacing Ramasse) make some fearsome plays through the outside, whilst Weinberg and Koeppe combined for four blocks as Cambridge edged in front at 19-17. Leeds, however, battled hard to stay in contention and level the scores at 22-22 through some strong backrow attacking from their ex-England Junior players. Crucially, the Blues squandered their chance, as Jacquet received two trap sets on the outside which he could do nothing with; Leeds levelled the match with a 25-22 decision.
Almost inevitably, the Cambridge passing unit now broke down when the heat was on, as Leeds jumped out to 4-0. Huynh, Weinberg and Ramasse again performed admirably on the wing attacks, but were always faced with double blocks as the Blues could not mobilise their first tempo options. Leeds were not really pressured as they finished off the match 15-7, and Cambridge were out of the competition.
Most of what was, by now, a rather dejected Blues team elected to stay at their B&B that evening, drinking and watching movies with their counterparts from the women's team. The latter had opted for a night in for a different reason, that they had made it through to the semi-finals the next day, and did not want to jeopardise their chances in the manner that Cambridge Men had in 1999.
Cambridge arrived the next morning in time to line-judge for the first semi-final, and watched as a strong Glasgow side boasting a monstrous opposite hitter (aptly named Gunn), dispose of Sheffield Hallam in two sets. The Blues were disappointed to note that Hallam played well below the level they had managed against them on the Friday night. In the second semi-final, Portsmouth were no match for a well-drilled Loughborough side.
Blues 1-2 Southampton (27-25, 20-25, 18-20)
Cambridge thus took to the court to play Southampton in the wooden spoon match. Denis Zuev started as setter with Andreas Malm restored as opposite, Rich Weinberg and Quentin Ramasse as outside hitters, Dan Escott and Soren Koeppe as middle blockers and Huw Vater as libero.
The Blues started well, with Escott active and Malm making some probing attacks from the opposite position. Cambridge were cruising at 16-10, but for the umpteenth time during the weekend, let slip an advantage through poor passing. Southampton were allowed to drag themselves back into the match, despite coach White using up both his time-outs and substituting both outside hitters, and had the first set point at 25-24. Not for the first time that weekend, Jean-Rene Huynh rescued his side, as a kill in serve receive saved the set, and another gave Cambridge a set point of their own, which was duly converted into a 27-25 victory.
The Cambridge first tempo option was again conspicuous by its absence in set two, but Huynh and Ramasse were effective through the outside, and Dan Escott was lethal from the backrow. In a see-saw battle, the Blues led 14-11, and were still hot favourites to wrap up the match at 19-17. But then came another collapse in the passing, and the worst of the entire weekend. Although they were faced with a reasonably strong jump server, there was little excuse for what followed as Cambridge lost seven successive points, being able to donate freeballs at best as Zuev struggled even to reach a series of unsettable passes. Southampton took the set 25-20.
Another tiebreak, and another run of unpleasant passes saw Cambridge drop to 0-4. The Blues did not give up, however, with Dan Escott making the best of what little service he received through the middle, but all looked lost as their early advantage saw Southampton have three match points at 14-11. However Jean-Rene Huynh, who was immense throughout the set, killed against a double block to win the side-out, and two fine services from Andreas Malm brought the Blues back to parity. The large crowd now in attendance were thrilled as both teams fought nervously for the match, each making service errors. At 17-16, Escott had the chance to seal it on a B attack, but put his spike agonisingly long. A Ramasse hitting error gave the Southern side their fifth match point, but Escott hammered down an A ball to save the game. Southampton sided-out once more, and finally sealed it 20-18 on a Malm hitting error after defending two blistering attacks from Escott.
Dan Escott registered 42 points in the tournament, and extended his record season's points total to 262. He was closely followed by Jean-Rene Huynh (33 points) and Rich Weinberg (26 points).
Coach Richard White reflected on the weekend's performances: "As with the EVA tournament, we didn't really do ourselves justice here. It would be hard to imagine us beating Glasgow and Loughborough in the form that they showed, but had we played as we can, a semi-final place would have been easily secured. Unfortunately, it was our passing which again let us down. This is enormously disappointing, since we have worked hard at this skill, and performed it well, for most of the season, only to lose it when it most mattered, during the Finals tournaments. It was lapses costing us runs of points in a single rotation which lost us sets against Hallam, Leeds, and Portsmouth. Dan Escott hit well but could not be used as much as I would have liked, and for me the players of the tournament were Jean-Rene Huynh and Rich Weinberg. We've suffered badly from losing players at the worst times this season - at the start of this tournament we had three players unavailable due to work, two more out with broken bones, whilst of the players here, Andreas Malm (back), Quentin Ramasse (neck), Dan Escott (knee) and Denis Zuev (recovering from glandular fever) were all less than fully fit. The good news is that most of this squad will be back next season, where hopefully we can turn this experience to our advantage."
Cambridge therefore finished eighth in the competition, but their spirits were livened by the feats of the Blues' women, who secured a Club-best second place in the competition, behind a typically dominant Loughborough side. Better news was to come, as Cambridge setter Stephanie Bee was named BUSA Player of the Tournament in recognition of her exceptional performance and leadership of the team throughout the weekend.
All that remained was for the team to settle down to watch the Men's Final, which pitted Glasgow against Loughborough. The plethora of Loughborough women's team players provided vocal support for their team, but were largely drowned out by the Glasgow support, which numbered practically everyone else. The atmosphere was electric, and it would be hard to imagine a better match. The level of power and intensity from both sides was remarkable, and the overall standard of play exceptional. Neither team ever took more than a three point lead, with Glasgow snatching set one, but reaping the whirlwind as the home side battled hard to take the second set. In a gripping finale, the lead exchanged hands time and again during the tiebreak, with a vociferous crowd urging the Scots to success. Glasgow had the first chance to take the match at 14-13, and looked to have it won as Loughborough overpassed the crucial serve. The Scots' star hitter, Gunn, leapt up to bounce the ball down, but agonisingly missed the sideline by a foot. However Loughborough lost their heads at the critical moment, being unsure of who was to serve and whether their libero should be on court or not. The referee quite correctly blew for the service, but the confused home team could only throw the ball up without offering any serve attempt, and lost the point. Within seconds it was all over, Glasgow finally taking an incredible match 16-14 to the delight of the majority of the spectators.
Despite their own sub-par performance, all of the Cambridge squad thoroughly enjoyed the weekend, which was a fitting showcase for student volleyball. After a not inconsiderable number of teething problems, the new BUSA structure appeared to have worked, in that eight strong and relatively well-matched teams made it to the Finals. The standard of matchplay was therefore higher than in previous years, where the tournament has arguably contained too many one-sided matches, and this was reflected by the qualification for the semi-finals being decided on sets scored for both pools. All of the Cambridge Men send their very best wishes to Glasgow, who were deserved victors.
|Position||Sets Played||Attacks||Kills||Kill %||Aces||Blocks||Total Points|
Report by Richard White
|Pages maintained by Dan Escott||Last updated: March 2001|