Cambridge Men put Light Blues volleyball on the map with best-ever third place finish
Cambridge University Men's volleyball team travelled to Loughborough on Friday 12th March to compete in the Finals of the BUSA National Championships, a three-day event featuring the top eight teams in the country. The Light Blues had qualified for the BUSA tournament for the first time following an arduous qualification campaign. Having beaten Cranfield, Luton and UEA Norwich in the group phases, Cambridge had needed to battle hard to overcome both Reading and Brunel in tough away games in order to reach the Finals. Between these victories had come the Light Blues' historic Varsity Match victory, after eight successive Oxford triumphs, and Cambridge and their coach Maik Leder looked forward to making their mark on the game at a national level.
The squad which travelled to Loughborough on the Friday afternoon comprised middle blockers Dan Escott, Colin Feeney, Andy Digby and Rudiger Hoyer, setter Garth Smith and outside hitters Roger Martinez, Steffen Krusch and Richard White. Cambridge were unable to field starting hitter Rudolph Glitz, or setters Paul-Henri Plantevin and Klaus Reinhard due to unavailability, and faced their first match against reigning BUSA and EVA champions Sheffield Hallam with an untried line-up. Garth Smith began as setter with Hoyer at opposite, captain Escott and Krusch as middle blockers and Martinez and White as outside hitters.
The first set was a harsh lesson for Cambridge, as a full-strength Hallam side, comprising several England Junior Internationals, tore apart their experimental line-up on their way to a 15-1 decision. Feeney and Digby appeared during set two, and Cambridge posted a gutsier performance, pushing the defending champions hard before finally succumbing 15-11. Although they were not to know it at the time, Cambridge had taken more points off Hallam in that set than any other team were to manage in the rest of the championships.
Nevertheless the team adjourned to a hostlery near to their B&B somewhat crestfallen at their start to the tournament. Coach Leder even bought the side a round of drinks, commenting "If the rest of the teams here are like that, you guys will need these..."
Returning to the University campus on the Saturday morning, Cambridge knew that they would need to win their remaining two group games that day, against Kent and Glasgow, in order to qualify for the semi-finals. After their defeat by Hallam, the same Cambridge line-up faced Kent unsure of what to expect; the answer was more of the same, as a strong and well-drilled side quickly pummelled the Light Blues into submission. Having lost set one, Cambridge fell to 7-12 down in the second and looked to be going out of the tournament.
And then Cambridge's weekend changed. Outside hitter Richard White had spent most of the match powerless as Kent's mighty opposite hitter drilled spike after spike down past his block, and had made a number of ungentlemanly comments through the net in order to express his frustration. Now the Kent hitter hammered one across which White tracked perfectly, stuffing the ball straight back down at his opponent's feet, and shouting through the net at him to ram the point home. The EVA referee had clearly had enough, and showed White the yellow card, something no-one could remember ever happening to a Cambridge player before. However the incident seemed to galvanise the whole team, who battled back valiantly to secure the second set behind some excellent serving from Digby and Feeney, and then snatch an unlikely victory in the decider.
The magic continued into the third group match, as Cambridge initially trailed Glasgow 5-11 before again rallying to take that set and a more comfortable second game. Having secured the 2-0 victory, the squad celebrated wildly, realising that they had qualified for the semi-finals and could now finish no lower than fourth in the UK.
That evening, the whole team attended the tournament party arranged for all the teams. There, Cambridge captain Dan Escott confronted the captain of Imperial College, who were to be the Light Blues' opponents in the semi-final on the Sunday morning, and told him in no uncertain terms that his Cambridge team were going to hammer them. The Imperial captain and his squad were nowhere to be seen for the rest of the evening, and an increasingly alcohol-fuelled Light Blues squad concluded that they had been scared away. Cambridge coach Maik Leder left the club at 10pm, but made the crucial tactical mistake of leaving behind his players. Never a group to turn their backs on cheap drink and a disco soundtrack, most of the Cambridge team had finally drifted back to their B&B by about 2am.
The Sunday morning was a gruesome sight in the B&B, with the overdrinking and undersleeping of the night before having taken its toll. Nevertheless the majority of the players tucked into their full English breakfasts, aware of the recuperative powers of this traditional hangover cure. But German star Rudiger Hoyer was paler than most, and asked only for a sausage; when it duly arrived, however, he was unable even to look at it, and could only manage a few mouthfuls of dry toast...
After this preparation, plus as much black coffee as they could force down, the Cambridge squad arrived back in the centre of Loughborough for their semi-final with Imperial, due to start at an ungodly 9am. It was during the warm-up that the Light Blues began to realise that Imperial had not in fact been scared away the night before, but had instead elected to prepare for the big match with an early night - slightly more conventional than the Cambridge approach.
Nevertheless Cambridge, who had been boosted by the arrival of Paul-Henri Plantevin that morning, took to the court with he and Smith setting, Hoyer and Escott through the middle and Martinez and White as outside hitters, and immediately took the game to Imperial. The end result was comfortably the most exciting match of the tournament, drawing a large crowd of onlookers as it lurched towards its thrilling conclusion.
Cambridge jumped out to 9-1, but their early promise disappeared as the caffeine and breakfast wore off, and the excesses of the previous evening returned to haunt them. Thereafter the match settled down into a close battle between the all-round strength of Cambridge, and an Imperial side who boasted two immense Greek power hitters, but little else. The early advantage was enough for Cambridge to take set one, but the Londoners scraped set two to force a tiebreak. Under the rally scoring format, the teams were never more than two points apart, and the score rose to 13-13 before a moment of controversy decided the match. Smith, blocking on the right side, intercepted an Imperial attack and blocked it straight down. The linesman called the ball in on the line (and therefore point to Cambridge), but the first official, who was closer, overruled him. Despite Smith's protests, it was Imperial and not Cambridge who had match point. Seconds later it was all over, 15-13 to the Londoners and the Light Blues were left to reflect upon what might have been.
Cambridge were back on court soon afterwards for their third place play-off, in which they faced Sheffield, BUSA champions in 1997 and still fielding two England Juniors. The Northerners looked shocked as Cambridge won the first set easily and then gave their bench some court time for the rest of the game. Although Sheffield sneaked the second set and fought hard in the decider, the Light Blues clung on for a 16-14 decision to claim third place in the UK. Sheffield setter Andrew Vincett was inconsolable after the match, sitting against the wall with his head bowed, and was still there after the Cambridge players had showered and changed to watch the Final.
Sheffield Hallam destroyed Imperial in the main event, with the London side ending up scoring fewer points than Cambridge had managed in their first group match. Although Hallam were clearly the dominant force in the student game, the Light Blues returned home proud of a best-ever performance in a national student competition. Player of the weekend was Roger Martinez, Cambridge's one-time Spanish Junior International, but perhaps the most pleasing aspect were the comments by many onlookers that Cambridge showed the best team spirit of any side in the tournament.
Report by Richard White