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"Pool of Death" condemns Cambridge to ninth place finish
Cambridge University Men's volleyball team travelled to Leeds on Friday 16th February for the finals of the EVA Student Cup. Although the squad had been weakened by an injury to starting middle blocker Steffen Krusch and the non-availability of outside hitter Jean-Rene Huynh, the players nevertheless took to their fleet of hired Space Cruisers on the Friday evening in buoyant mood. For the first time in the history of the Club, both the Men's and Women's teams had secured qualification for the EVA Finals tournament, and both were optimistic of achieving best-ever placings in the Cup.
In what turned out to be an early sign that Lady Luck would not be smiling upon the Light Blues that weekend, most of the team finally arrived in Leeds in the back of an AA recovery truck - an oil pressure warning light having forced them to halt their journey halfway up the A1. The name of the Oliver Cromwell service station will live long in the memories of both teams, but spirits remained high, with Denis Zuev and Andreas Malm alleviating the boredom by organising a 'snake' tournament on their mobile phones. The golf game on Malm's palmtop computer also helped pass the time.
Finally arriving at their B&B some time after midnight, an undignified scramble for the best rooms meant that most of the players were not in bed until well past 1am. Morale remained good, however, and coach Dr Richard White felt reasonably content that the late arrival had at least prevented his players from going out and getting drunk that night.
The Saturday dawned brightly, and a complex ferrying programme eventually delivered all the players to Leeds Metropolitan University, after some traditional difficulties finding the Leeds Ring Road. Cambridge were spectators for the first match, and quickly got into their warm-up routine as reigning BUSA and EVA champions Sheffield Hallam disposed of Exeter with the minimum of fuss.
The Light Blues thus took to the court to face Bristol, who had pre-qualified for the tournament and were an unknown quantity, having not even entered a team the previous year. Any hopes that the team might have had that the EVA had implemented a sensible seeding system were immediately dashed, as it became apparent that Bristol were a very strong side. Led by a setter rated by the Cambridge coaches as the best in the whole tournament, a well-drilled hitting unit put Cambridge to the sword, with 'Benoit', the Bristol middle blocker, proving unstoppable. The Light Blues normally watertight passing unit floundered, with Weinberg and libero Huw Vater playing well below their usual standards, and Cambridge's star hitter Dan Escott could not get into the game. Bristol took set one 25-21, and despite some strong attacking from Cambridge's Soren Koeppe and Weinberg in set two, were even more convincing as they clinched a 25-18 decision. The Blues retreated shellshocked to the balcony to watch the next match.
If further confirmation that this was a 'group of death' were needed, Bristol proved it by defeating defending champions Hallam in a three-set thriller, thus assuring qualification for the quarter-finals. Cambridge now knew that they would have to beat both Exeter and Hallam to avoid elimination at the first hurdle. The first part of their task proved straightforward. Exeter, who had irritated the Cambridge players with some poor refereeing during their match with Bristol, were no match for the Blues. Although the passing was still below par, Jean Jacquet and Koeppe turned in strong performances. Indeed Jacquet became the first player this season to deprive Dan Escott of an MVP award, making six kills on nine swings as well as two blocks and two aces, as Cambridge swept to an easy 25-15, 25-18 victory.
And so to Hallam. The two sides were matched up for the fourth time in four BUSA/EVA tournaments, with Hallam having triumphed in all of their previous encounters. Marko Jauhiainen started at opposite, and it was Cambridge who started the stronger, forcing a time-out by the Sheffield side at 10-7. Alas the Blues service reception was again weak, with middle blockers Escott and Koeppe having scant opportunity to test the Hallam block. In a high quality game which drew praise from the onlooking EVA referee assessor, Hallam always had the edge. His name was Alex Porter, their 2.05m England international, and Cambridge had no answer to him. A 25-19, 25-16 defeat sent the Blues into the largely meaningless placings phase for the Sunday.
The gloom was lifted slightly by the news that the Blues' women had qualified for the quarter-finals, where they were to take on Oxford. But Cambridge's bitterness at having been placed in a pool with two other teams of such obvious strength was heightened when they learned that Oxford and Nottingham, teams whom the Blues had repeatedly defeated without difficulty throughout the first half of the season, had made it through to the quarter-finals by virtue of playing in much weaker pools. Curry and beers with the women's teams that evening gave the men ample opportunity to vent their feelings of injustice, but the squad surfaced the next morning with a mood of renewed determination to prove that they were a stronger side than a possible best ninth place finish would suggest.
York were the first victims, and Cambridge hardly broke sweat in disposing of them 25-15, 25-14. All of the squad saw court time, with Quentin Ramasse and Max Bautin making their first appearances of the tournament at outside hitter and opposite respectively. Setter Denis Zuev at last received some decent passes, and was able to fool the York block with a series of combination plays. Everyone scored at least two points in a balanced offense.
Next up were Leeds Metropolitan, the hosts, and another team seething at having been placed in a very difficult pool the previous day. Leeds Met boasted one exceptional hitter and a setter adept at finding him, and their combination caused Cambridge great concern. Another run of poor passes saw Cambridge fall behind, but of greater importance was an ankle injury sustained by Marko Jauhiainen as he landed after a block. He had to be taken off to hospital, where a broken ankle was confirmed, and a subdued Blues side dropped the first set, 25-23. Sterling performances from Jacquet, Escott and Quentin Ramasse turned the game round, however, and Cambridge took set two 25-21, and with it the match on points difference. Leeds Met, already unhappy at the EVA's organisation of the previous day's matches, were now incensed that the rules did not allow for a tiebreak set in the placings matches.
Although offered the chance to play a final set, Cambridge declined, opting to take the victory and head off to Leeds University. The line of communication set up between the teams meant that the men's team had been kept informed of the progress of their fairer counterparts on the women's team, who had shocked Oxford in the quarter-finals to set up a semi-final clash with London.
Alas the bulk of the men arrived in time only to see Cambridge defeated narrowly by London, and then lose again to a powerful Loughborough II side in the play-off. Nevertheless fourth place represented a best-ever performance, and a superb achievement in the absence of star hitter Anne Mullin.
The folly of the draw for the men's competition was now clear for all to see, as Hallam waltzed past a pair of mediocre teams and into the final. Bristol looked a shadow of the side that had stunned Cambridge, and showed signs of having indulged in some whole-hearted celebrations at the volleyball party the night before. Nevertheless they reached the semi-finals without undue alarm, only to be beaten by a London side boasting two monstrous hitters. After this series of rather one-sided matches, the tournament looked to be about to end in a whimper, but it was saved by a magnificent final. London shocked Hallam, coming back from set down to win 17-15 in the tiebreak. Loughborough I women's team, who looked at least a class above everyone else in the competition, surprised no-one by wrapping up yet another title in the women's competition.
Alas the hand of Fate delivered yet another slap to the face of the Blues, as, almost unbelievably, the second of their hire vehicles developed the same fault as the first on the way home. Another journey was therefore undertaken with the assistance of the AA, with most of the players arriving back in Cambridge not much before midnight on the Sunday.
Coach Dr Richard White reflected "I think the whole squad, myself included, were intensely frustrated by the draw which we suffered. We were placed with teams that eventually finished 2nd and 3rd, and were knocked out straight away, whereas teams like Nottingham and Oxford - whom we have beaten a combined total of five times this season - got through to the quarters from easy pools. Having said that, we didn't play particularly well when it really mattered. I honestly think that only the top three teams were superior to us, but the fact remains that we simply did not prove this on court. The best players of the tournament were Jean Jacquet, Quentin Ramasse and Soren Koeppe. Jean was the best passer and outside hitter, Quentin came off the bench and basically won us the Leeds Met game, whilst Soren continues to amaze everyone; hitting above 50% in the National Finals after being thrust into the team only a few weeks ago speaks for itself."
MVP for the tournament was Dan Escott with 38 points, closely followed by Jean Jacquet with 30. The best quotes of the weekend came from the first evening. After stopping at the service station to check the oil in their Space Cruiser, coach Richard White asked Dan Escott what the oil level was. Escott's reply: "Oil? We can't find the engine...". Inside the Little Chef restaurant later that evening. Rich Weinberg: "Andreas, how many times per day do you reckon you use your palm?" Andreas: "Hmmm... probably ten to fifteen times." The team was eventually reassured that they had been talking about Malm's palmtop computer.
Cambridge men now face an anxious wait before learning who their opponents will be for the last 16 of the BUSA competition. A victory in the knockout round will see them through to the BUSA Finals tournament in Loughborough for only the second time in the Club's history.
|Position||Sets Played||Attacks||Kills||Kill %||Aces||Blocks||Total Points|
Report by Richard White
|Pages maintained by Dan Escott||Last updated: February 2001|