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Varsity Match (Iffley Road, Oxford) - (12/2/00)

CUVC 3-2 Oxford University (26-28, 17-25, 25-18, 25-17, 19-17)

After one hour and forty-two minutes of enthralling volleyball Cambridge, having clawed their way back from two sets to nil down to level the 2000 Varsity Match at two sets all, and saving three match points in the tiebreak set, served with a third match point of their own at 18-17. Oxford recycled Steffen Krusch's service to outside hitter Panos Politis, who drilled his spike past the despairing Cambridge block. Krusch could not control the ball in defence, and as it looped out of the back of court, the match looked as if it would be levelled once again. However Mathias Klaeui, urged on by every Light Blues supporter in the hall, somehow chased the ball down and dug it back to Cambridge setter Pierre Baillet, who in turn passed it back over the net. With simple possession, Oxford supplied a perfect pass to setter Boutros who, with all attacking options available, chose to run the first tempo attack of middle hitter Zografos. But Cambridge middle blocker Dan Escott reached high over the net to stuff the power attack down at the Oxford player's feet, and Cambridge had won what will surely go down as the most thrilling match in the history of the fixture, and probably the greatest comeback victory in the Club's history.

Cambridge had entered the match looking to extend their record run of ten victories without dropping a set, and started with Pierre Baillet setting, Roger Martinez as utility hitter, Alessio Ruggieri and Dan Escott as middle blockers and Jean-Rene Huynh and Steffen Krusch as outside hitters. Oxford boasted a powerful array of hitters, including outside attacker Rudolf Glitz, who had played for the Light Blues in their victory last year, and looked to provide Cambridge with a stern test of their abilities.

Oxford were out of the traps more quickly than Cambridge, and immediately put pressure on all areas of the Light Blues' game. Excellent passing enabled them to commit Cambridge's middle players to blocking first tempo attacks, and this enabled Glitz to register a series of powerful cross-court kills through the outside. Meanwhile Cambridge's own service receivers struggled against the spike services of Politis and Brooks. Cambridge coach Patrick Howorth called a time-out at 17-21, and his team then levelled the scores at 22 as key hitters Martinez and Escott began to get into the game, helped by some outstanding back-row defence by Jean-Rene Huynh. The two teams then traded side-outs until a hitting error from Martinez allowed Oxford to take the set 28-26. It was the first set that Cambridge had lost for ten matches.

Howorth fielded the same six for the second set, but Oxford again opened up an early advantage. Although Cambridge were serving better, their blocking, which had hitherto not been impressive, now deteriorated further and enabled their opponents to score points almost at will through tools and wipe-offs. A run of poor passes also stifled the Light Blues' own attacking options, and they were forced into a time-out at 15-21. Despite some strong power hitting from utility hitter Martinez, Oxford clinically wrapped up the set 25-17 and looked to be on their way to a straightforward victory.

At this point Patrick Howorth brought on Mathias Klaeui for Ruggieri at middle blocker, but the subdued mood of the Cambridge bench and travelling supporters revealed their lack of hope for the Light Blues' cause. However Oxford, who had hardly put a foot wrong in the first two sets, did not make their expected lightning start to the third, and Cambridge's passing unit suddenly began to provide quality possession to setter Baillet. He was thus able to deploy Escott's fast middle attack, whilst Jean-Rene Huynh was now only countered by a single block at outside and started to kill the ball at will. Oxford were forced to time out at 1-5 and 8-16 and, although Cambridge's blocking was still poor, ace serves from Escott and Klaeui and a much greater number of unforced errors from the Dark Blues enabled Cambridge to take the set 25-18, sending their supporters wild as faint hopes of a dramatic comeback began to look more tangible.

Clearly shocked by the Cambridge resurgence, Oxford again fell behind early on in the fourth set, and although they called an early time-out, a run of seven services from Mathias Klaeui took the Light Blues almost beyond reach at 16-7. Improved Cambridge serving prevented Oxford from running fast, first tempo attacks, and their outside hitters were given little chance as the visitors stepped up their blocking and floor defence. Jean-Rene Huynh excelled at outside hitter, whilst Roger Martinez again made impressive kills from both front and back row. Oxford were allowed to bring some respectability to the scoreline as Cambridge made four service errors, and Martinez uncharacteristically made three successive errors in attack, but the result was never really in doubt as the Light Blues closed out the set 25-17 to send the match into a tiebreak set. Cambridge's dominance in the set was emphasised by the statistic that they scored only 4 of their 25 points through opposition errors.

As the Oxford coach tried to rally his downcast squad above the cacophony created by a crowd of well over a hundred, Cambridge coach Patrick Howorth impressed upon his side the need to settle early in the final set, with the first to only 15 points being the winner. The same six took to the court, and it was immediately clear that Oxford were not going to give up without a fight. As in previous sets, the tiebreak began with a series of side-outs, but it was Oxford who took a crucial lead as holes in the Cambridge block reappeared at seemingly the worst possible time. Coach Howorth called time-outs at 5-7 and 8-11 to attempt to disrupt the flow of the opposition, but it was Cambridge who were disrupted when, at 9-11, the scorer indicated that Cambridge had made a rotation error. Howorth and Cambridge captain Richard White (unavailable to play in the match due to the completion of his doctorate) complained vociferously, but the entry on the scoresheet was deemed to be final. Although the scorer admitted after the match that he had made an error, and that White and Howorth were correct, Cambridge found themselves 9-12 down with no time-outs remaining.

With the tension almost unbearable, Cambridge pulled back to 12-13, but an unstoppable Oxford attack gave Oxford two match points, with Rudolf Glitz to serve. The ex-Cambridge player served on Dan Escott, who delivered a perfect pass to Pierre Baillet; the set was a reverse to Roger Martinez, and he brought the Cambridge supporters to their feet with an awesome spike over the Oxford block. Martinez then took up the ball to serve, an immense burden given that a fault would give the match to Oxford. However his testing float serve was not well controlled by Glitz, and the resultant Oxford attack was recycled to Pierre Baillet, who again set the reverse ball. Martinez was back row rather than front row this time, but the result was the same as he hammered past the two blockers to level the game. The explosion of noise from the crowd indicated the sheer relief of the Cambridge contingent. An Oxford error then brought the match to fever pitch as the home side were forced into their final time-out at 14-15 and match point down. With the players back on court, Martinez again forced Glitz into a poor pass and enabled the Light Blues to defend the Oxford attack; the sense of deja-vu was completed when Baillet set reverse once more, but this time the Dark Blue block held firm to stuff out Martinez's attack; 15-15. With the first side to go two points clear now winning, the match was effectively sudden-death. An Oxford kill gave them a third match point at 16-15, and they managed to get the ball into transition from the resulting Cambridge attack. Suddenly the Oxford bench were on their feet as outside attacker Politis grounded the ball, but he had collapsed under the net as he spiked; 16-16. Klaeui now served, and from the resultant play Oxford's first tempo middle attack was blocked emphatically by Escott; 17-16 and a second match point to Cambridge. In all the excitement the match referee almost forgot the new scoring rules and was ready to award Cambridge the match, but more was to come. Klaeui served again, and this time Oxford setter Boutros found his opposite attacker Brooks to wipe-off the block; 17-17. Boutros himself delivered the next serve, and although Escott delivered about his only sub-standard pass of the whole set, Steffen Krusch was on hand to kill through the outside. Krusch himself took the ball to serve the next point and, for everyone there on the day, the rest is history. Cambridge took a famous victory by 19-17, and the entire team and bench dived into a mass of screaming figures in the centre of court in celebration.

Cambridge coach Patrick Howorth, shaking visibly at the end of the game, said when he had calmed down a few days later: "Generally, I was pleased with our performance, all things considered. We were missing three key players, through injury and non-availability, which gave us the chance to blood two new middles. Considering the unfamilar line up and fast combinations that Oxford ran, it was not surprising to find ourselves two sets down. This was due to poor performances by key players. The exception to this was Jean-Rene [Huynh] who finally delivered with the sort of performance that he has been showing throughout the year in training. The way in which the key players started their comeback was excellent. What was required was solid play, and Roger [Martinez] and Dan [Escott] started to play themselves back into the match in the third set. Alessio [Ruggieri] and Mathias [Klaeui] also had good games. In the fourth set, Oxford started to collapse under the pressure we were applying and it was satisfying that we maintained this throughout the set, allowing us an important edge in the tiebreak. Oxford were always going to come out strongly in the fifth set and it was important that we maintained our nerve, which we did in saving three match points. Whilst our technical performance was below our par, the way in which we maintained our mental strength was very impressive. On Wednesday, will need to draw again on these strengths and deliver an enhanced technical display to beat Sheffield Hallam. This is something that we are capable of doing; if so we should have a clear run through to the finals of both BUSA and EVA.".

Although statistics do not tell the true tale of this most dramatic of matches, Roger Martinez again emerged as MVP with 27 points (24 kills, 2 blocks and 1 ace). Dan Escott made 22 points (14 kills at 0.538, 6 blocks and 2 aces) and passed the ball superbly throughout the match, whilst Jean-Rene Huynh at last played to his true potential, making 10 kills at a ratio of 0.588 and putting on an outstanding display of back-court defence. However, as the final point illustrated, it was a magnificent performance by the team as a whole that won this match.

Cambridge have only three days to recover before facing Sheffield Hallam, last year's champions, in the last 16 of the BUSA Championships, and then travel to Leeds next weekend (19th and 20th February) for the EVA Finals.

Name Position Sets Attacks Kills Kill ratio Aces Blocks Points
Steffen Krusch * M 5 22 6 0.273 1 1 8
Pierre Baillet * S 5 7 3 0.429 1 2 6
Dan Escott * M 5 26 14 0.538 2 6 22
Jean-Rene Huynh * O 5 17 10 0.588 0 2 12
Roger Martinez * U 5 59 24 0.407 1 2 27
Alessio Ruggieri * M 2 4 0 0.000 0 0 0
Mathias Klaeui * M 3 5 1 0.200 2 2 5
Total     140 58 0.414 7 15 80

* Players awarded Half-Blues

Report by Richard White

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