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After the euphoria of their remarkable Varsity Match victory just three days' previously, a tired-looking Men's Team were brought back down to earth with a thump as Sheffield Hallam, last year's EVA and BUSA champions, knocked them out of this year's BUSA competition yesterday at the last 16 stage with what was eventually a comfortable 3-1 victory.
Their performances last year have made Hallam the current benchmark for University volleyball sides. A side packed with strong hitters, including London Malory and National team player Alex Porter at middle blocker, they were destined to provide Cambridge with the ultimate test of their abilities. Cambridge coach Patrick Howorth made only one change from Saturday's Varsity winning-side with Pierre Baillet setting, Roger Martinez as utility hitter, Dan Escott and Jon Clarke as middle blockers and Steffen Krusch and Jean-Rene Huynh as outside hitters.
From the outset, Cambridge looked ready to pull off a major upset. Hallam's very first serve was passed perfectly to Baillet, who found Escott with a reverse-quick set that was grounded emphatically with the visitor's block nowhere. The first set continued in similar fashion, with good passing allowing the Light Blues to pressure Hallam into mistakes. Steffen Krusch was outstanding at outside, exploiting seams in the block consistently to make five kills as Cambridge coasted to a 25-18 victory.
Having sown the wind, the Blues expected to reap the whirlwind and were not disappointed. Hallam substituted their opposite attacker, who had been utterly ineffectual in the first set, improved their passing thanks to some thoughtless serving from Cambridge, and tightened up their block. For no apparent reason, the Light Blues self-destructed. The passing degenerated to such a level that Baillet could not bring Escott, clearly Cambridge's form hitter, into the game, whilst poor positioning of the block gifted Hallam easy diagonal power hits and wipe-offs. Roger Martinez, the hero of the Varsity match, was clearly tired after Saturday's marathon, and spikes that had been travelling over the block then were stuffed back at his feet now. The set finished a humiliating 25-8 to Hallam.
The same six started the third set, but Cambridge started just as poorly and slumped to 2-10. Thereafter the Light Blues improved, but the deficit was simply too much to pull back under the new rally points scoring system. The highlight of the set (and probably the whole day) was a monstrous stuff block by Dan Escott of an Alex Porter spike straight back into the England player's face. Porter, given the proverbial 'Mikasa tattoo', still bore a ball-shaped red mark on his face and was blinking furiously at the end of the set. However even this moment failed to lift Cambridge sufficiently as they slipped behind, losing the set 25-16.
The fourth set contained easily the worst volleyball that a Cambridge side has played this season. The passing was woeful, and although Escott was still making kills, he could not be given the ball sufficiently often. With Martinez unable to make headway against a well-set Hallam block, Cambridge needed to defend well; they didn't. Time and again balls dropped into the middle of court with players staring at each other, waiting for the other to play it (known in the trade as a 'husband and wife' routine - 'after you dear - no, after you dear'). The block was hardly worthy of the name, merely acting as a useful way for Hallam to score points without grinding the ball directly into the floor, and the serving again completely failed to pressure the Hallam receivers. A very forgettable set and match ended 12-25.
MVP was Dan Escott with 18 points (13 kills, 4 blocks, 1 ace). Roger Martinez also made 11 kills but even more errors as he time and again hit into the Hallam block. Daniel Mesnard and Mathias Klaeui made brief appearances as substitutes.
Coach Patrick Howorth was scathing after the game. "Before this match, I felt we had a very good chance of beating Sheffield Hallam, considering the experience and strength in our squad. When they arrived, seeing them warm up it only served to reinforce my opinion of them - technically proficient, a confident but young team, the sort that an experienced unit could wear down and force errors from, to such a level that we could win. The first set went according to plan, Steffen consistently exposed their weaknesses and we won comfortably. It was apparent that the rest of the match wouldn't be that one-sided and that Hallam would start stronger in the second set, and that to win this game, we would have to "weather the storm" and gradually reapply the pressure and force Hallam into making errors. What happened in the second and subsequent sets was unforeseen and ultimately an embarrassment for myself and for the team. With the exception of a couple of points, we were our own worst enemies, we failed to deliver during most rallies, making many unforced errors. I have never felt so anguished and embarrassed in all my career, the manner in which Sheffield Hallam tormented us was insulting, but unfortunately fully deserved. For as long as I play/coach volleyball, I never wish to be part of a team that played as we did. I would like to think, that in the EVA finals we can redeem ourselves and restore some pride to our team."
The team, which will be weakened further by injury and non-availability of players, must pick themselves up quickly as they travel to Leeds this weekend to play Hallam, London and Nottingham for a place in the EVA quarter-finals.
Report by Richard White
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