Blues 2-3 Birmingham University (25-16, 16-25, 25-14, 21-25, 13-15)
The latest encounter for Cambridge Men's volleyball team saw them lose their third match of the season after a thrilling, but ultimately heart-breaking encounter with Birmingham University. The defeat drops Cambridge to a 6-3 mark in the Midlands Conference, and assuming other results run to form, means that the Blues must defeat Loughborough next week in order to be sure of second place in the group, although they can finish no lower than third.
Arriving early for their fixture despite the usual Birmingham rush-hour traffic, the Blues initially went to the wrong sports hall for their warm-up, perhaps slightly bemused at the splendour of a sports centre with two indoor halls. It quickly became clear that Birmingham's home team was significantly different to their away unit, with no fewer than four players who had not travelled to Cambridge for the pre-Christmas fixture, and one of those a Cypriot international, Andreas Nikiforou. However a confident Blues side lined up with Roger Konrad setting, Dan Roy at opposite, Dan Escott and Soren Koeppe in the middle, Andy Lynn and Ken Kato on the outside and Denis Zuev as libero.
Both sides began strongly with a series of convincing side-outs, however a run of jump serves from Roy forced the home side to call time-out down 3-7. The Blues were in dominant form and pulled away rapidly, with Dan Escott registering kills and a jump service ace to notch up his 500th official point for Cambridge, a landmark celebrated vociferously by his team. With all the Blues hitters active, Birmingham could find little by way of reply as the first set was won 25-16.
Cambridge started the same for game two, however after a great block by Escott on Nikiforou the Blues succumbed to a period of poor passing and indifferent attacking and allowed the home team to establish a commanding lead. Coach Dr Richard White used up both time-outs and subbed on Pierre Briguet-Lamarre and Anthony Reynolds, but a reinvigorated Birmingham levelled the match by a 25-16 mark.
Set three saw Cambridge return to the commanding form of the first game, and a nine-point run on Dan Roy's jump serve, with Lynn unstoppable in transition, was the deciding factor. The midlanders were thumped 25-14, and a strong start behind Konrad's float service in game four looked to have put the Blues on the road to victory. However with Cambridge leading 3-1, Escott and Briguet-Lamarre both went up for the same backrow set, and the resulting collision saw the Frenchman stagger from the court in agony with an ankle injury. Kato returned in his place, but was himself having problems with his contact lenses, and a discombobulated Blues side began to slip behind as their passing foundered against strong serving from Birmingham, whilst Antoniadis stunned the Blues hitters with a series of outstanding digs down the line. The set ended in depressing fashion as Escott sent a float service out of bounds to seal matters 25-21.
The tiebreak set was the showcase for a gripping display of power volleyball that brought the home crowd to fever pitch and drew praise from the referees after its conclusion. At 1-2, a combination play from Cambridge was read by the home side, and Dan Roy was stuffed almost straight down by a triple block. However Kato somehow kept the ball alive with a magnificent reaction save, and Birmingham could only watch as the ball looped up into the middle of their court for the point. After an exchange of side-outs, the Blues made the first break as Lynn stuff-blocked Birmingham opposite Antoniadis. Cambridge turned round with an 8-7 lead, and Koeppe then came to the fore as he killed against a double block before serving his side to a 9-7 lead. Fellow middle Escott was not to be outdone, however, as he subsequently brought the score to 10-8 by thumping a shoot set into the face of the home opposite for a convincing six-pack. Alas the Blues now stuttered at the crucial moment, as a hitting error gifted Birmingham a key side-out, and three more (despite an intervening time-out) saw the score slip to 10-12. But the match was not over yet, as Dan Roy stuffed Nikiforou straight down to make the set a deuce game. The home team took back the ball at 14-13, and then had a slice of luck as their number eight's jump service clipped the tape and dropped over. Although Kato retrieved it, the ensuing Cambridge attack was dug and converted for victory.
Coach White reflected after the match "This was a tremendous match but a bitterly disappointing one. We showed in sets one and three that when we play to our potential we are almost unstoppable, but we must do that for three sets and tonight we simply didn't. Our passing was suspect at key moments, and our backrow attacking was well below the usual standard. Pierre's injury is a major blow with the Student Cup, Varsity Match and BUSA championships coming up, we can only hope that it isn't too serious."
Andy Lynn was MVP with 22 points, closely followed by Dan Roy with 20. Dan Escott also reached double figures. Cambridge's next match is a friendly against Luton Lions on Thursday night, and they complete their BUSA qualifying campaign against Loughborough next Wednesday.
Report by Richard White
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