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An outstanding team performance from Cambridge University Men's volleyball team saw them defeat Nottingham University by three sets to one on Saturday. The Light Blues thus recorded their sixth victory in Tier 1 of the BUSA Midlands Conference, assuring themselves of at least second place in their pool.
Cambridge's preparations were severely hampered by a bout of influenza that had struck down most of the squad (including the coach) over the preceding week. Worst of all was the discovery that setter Denis Zuev would be unfit to play; with reserve setter John Lin in America for the whole Term, the Light Blues would be without a specialist in the most important position in volleyball against a side whom they had defeated only narrowly earlier in the season.
Cambridge coach Dr Richard White called his squad round during the warm-ups and ran through with his players an improvised system which they were to employ throughout the match. The odds on a home victory were lengthening as Nottingham looked impressive in their hitting warm-up, the away side having been motivated by the defeat of their women's team by Cambridge in the preceding match. Nevertheless, coach White sent out a starting six of Richard Weinberg and Quentin Ramasse setting, Dan Escott and Steffen Krusch as middle blockers and Jean Jacquet and Marko Jauhiainen as outside hitters, with Huw Vater fulfilling his usual role as libero.
Cambridge started uncertainly, understandably taking some time to adapt to the new system. However the spirit of the team was good, such that even when a great dig from Huw Vater of a bullet spike from Nottingham's star hitter Chris Anderson dropped harmlessly to earth beside the net - both Cambridge setters having forgotten their new roles for the match - the team was able to laugh it off. Coach White called time-out at 7-12, using the break to instruct the team as to their serving targets, and the tactic paid off as Jean Jacquet produced a run of testing serves to give the Light Blues the lead. A tense series of side-outs followed, but Cambridge were able to make key defensive plays when it most mattered, and took the set 25-21.
The same team started the second set, and stepped up their play to a new level. Although Nottingham's Anderson remained a menace, the Light Blues showed excellent organisation in block and defence, and were able to control the other Nottingham hitters. A run of jump serves from Richard Weinberg forced a Nottingham time-out at 14-8, but the away side were unable to draw any closer as Cambridge took the set 25-17.
Game three saw the Light Blues as before, but Nottingham pushed hard to secure an early advantage as the home side's passing deteriorated, giving the setters and outside hitters few chances to attack with conviction. Coach White called time-out at 7-12 and 14-19, but his team only really began to show their true form when all looked lost at 15-23. Behind consistent serving from Steffen Krusch, Cambridge blocked and defended superbly, giving their hitters transition opportunities and dragging the score back to 23-24. Then, in a controversial decision, Weinberg's floating serve was called out by the first referee, even though the line judge looked undecided.
Nottingham were visibly buoyed by this victory, but Cambridge started set four as they had finished the third. Jean-Rene Huynh now made what was only his second appearance of the season, and played a part in several key defensive plays as Cambridge blocked and defended stoutly to take a 13-5 advantage. There was no way back from Nottingham, and a series of morale-sapping stuff blocks from the Light Blues brought the set quickly to an end at a resounding 25-16.
Coach Dr Richard White was delighted with the result. "This was an exceptional display, the best this team has produced since the home game against Oxford. Playing without a specialist setter would be crippling for most teams, but Quentin Ramasse and Rich Weinberg stepped up to do the job superbly. But this was a real team performance - everyone realised they would need to play well for us to win without our setter, and they did so. Nottingham played better today than they did in our previous match, but we were just too good. I'm confident that winning this match will lift the team to new heights, but we must keep our fingers crossed that Denis Zuev returns to full fitness as soon as possible."
Dan Escott was again unwilling to yield the MVP award even for one match, totalling 23 points, and set a new University record with his 10 blocks in the match. However the new system led to a much more balanced attack, with Steffen Krusch (15 points) and Marko Jauhiainen (14 points) reaching double figures.
Cambridge travel to Loughborough on Wednesday to complete their BUSA fixture programme, and to tune up for the biggest game of the season, next Saturday's Varsity Match showdown with Oxford.
Report by Richard White
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