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Tag Archive for university volleyball

On beating expectations and wearing a kilt

It was a whirlwind week for me after returning from Edinburgh and Final 8s in 2014.The Exeter University Volleyball Club did better than anyone expected (see my recap), leaving its mark on the competition in multiple ways. I long had a bit of a buzz going from the realization of what we accomplished.

Not that I had much time to just bask in it all. I had to fulfill requests for press and publicity pieces to help get word of the teams’ successes to the masses. Despite the club having over 100 members, volleyball was not a high profile sport at Exeter. We were always fighting for our share of attention and support. We needed to use any and all success to help boost our standing in the athletics community there.

Of course there’s also the social aspect of things. Keeping up with all the photos and updates on Facebook and Twitter in the days after our Edinburgh success was at times a job unto itself. One of the players even put together a really well-done video. Those not on the trip wanted to hear the stories. I’m sure the players rehashed things among themselves many times. There was also the inevitable talk about what that year’s success could/should mean in terms of support for the club moving forward.

Even now, I still periodically find myself shaking my head at just how well things turned out at Final 8s.

As I documented in my Coaching Log entries over the course of the season, everything I did was aimed at preparing the women for just that level of competition (well, aside from Northumbria and Durham). I wasn’t surprised that they were able to put in a respectable performance against those teams. My thought was that 5th or 6th was probably a realistic expectation. I think the whole team, myself included, would have been quite pleased with that kind of result. After all, just two years prior the they were in Division 2. Wrapping my head around the idea that we finished as the 3rd best team in the U.K. is still a challenge.

As for the men…

In the case of the men, I had low expectations. Only three players returned from the prior year. I expected them to struggle to even make it to the Round of 16. They had a lot of things go their way to get them in to Final 8s.

It was a season of struggles on many levels. That probably shouldn’t have been a surprise considering the relative youth and inexperience of the group. Going into Final 8’s, we expected to be outmatched physically in all our matches. Further, we hadn’t really come together as a unit for any sustained period of time. I was, in all honestly, worried the guys were going to get pounded in four straight matches. I’d have been satisfied with having at least one match (probably the 7th/8th playoff) in which we were well and truly competitive. Even on the day I would not have been overly disappointed with having lost to Durham at the end as we’d have given them a good fight. In fact, I kept expecting them to beat us. They just didn’t do it!

So there I was, a coach in the rare position of having his teams both exceed expectations. So often we struggle to just meet them. It’s a strange feeling. Though it did make wearing a kilt to the club’s year-end dinner tonight a bit more fun. I said months prior if the women made it to Edinburgh that I’d wear one. Both teams succeeding as they did let me laugh all the more heartily at the absurdity of a night out in Exeter wearing a skirt. 🙂

2014 BUCS Volleyball Final 8s report

Last weekend was Final 8s, which brings together the top BUCS Division 1 teams to determine the two finalists who will battle it out for the volleyball championship on March 26th as part of Big Wednesday.This year’s event took place at the Edinburgh Centre for Sport & Exercise.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Final 8s, the format is a fairly straightforward one featuring an initial round of 4-team pool play followed by crossover matches. The top two teams in each pool play in the semifinals while the 3rd and 4th places teams respectively crossover to play in the 5th/6th and 7th/8th deciding matches. As a result, each team competes in four matches – two on Saturday and two on Sunday. It’s a 2-court operation in which rounds of men’s and women’s play are alternated throughout the day.

This year’s facility was a significant upgrade over the one in Leeds last year. There was ample space around the courts and overhead. The gym did get warm and humid at points, which is only to be expected given the number of athletes involved, but it wasn’t quite as bad as I remember from 2013. There was also good spectator areas and both the facility amenities and the surrounding area were notable improvements. All in all, I’d say it was a much better experience for the teams involved from that perspective.

I think the one grumble many of us might have was the balls. We used the Mikasa 5000 model, which is the official BUCS ball this year. There were a lot of missed serves, especially on the the first day. The ball just seemed to take off out of the server’s hand and sail long.

In terms of the play, the major structural difference was in the tournament format. Whereas in 2013 the pools had been determined based on an overall seeding, this year BUCS used a different structure which created pools based on a north/south split. As things turned out, it might not have mattered overly much in terms of where teams finished, especially those reaching the semifinals, but it could have been otherwise.

On the men’s side, defending champs Northumbria topped Group A. Sheffield Hallam came second, with Cranfield next, then Durham. Group B was won by Bournemouth, with UCL second, followed by East London and then Exeter. The only major surprise was UCL beating UEL as they had failed to do so in their two regular season league meetings. That was also the only group match to go three sets. Otherwise, the results were probably in line with expectations.

Northumbria and Sheffield Hallam won their semifinal matches over UCL and Bournemouth respectively (the latter was 2-1) and will meet in the final. UEL downed Cranfield 2-0 in the 5th/6th playoff. Exeter upset Durham 2-1 in the 7th/8th playoff.

On the women’s side it was a case of two teams being in an entirely different class from the rest. Defending champs Northumbria and 2013 finalist Durham both have squads stacked with former Team GB and American collegiate players which none of the rest could come close to matching. Watching those two play was like watching a good level US collegiate women’s match. Everyone else in the field was battling for scraps.

Northumbria and Durham were 1-2 in Group A. Oxford finished 3rd, with Lancaster bringing up the rear. Only the match between the latter two went longer than 2 sets.

Group B proved the more competitive of the two. King’s College won all three matches, but dropped sets to both Cambridge and Exeter. Bournemouth, Cambridge, and Exeter all beat each other to finish in a 3-way tie. Exeter took second on the set differential tiebreak, with Cambridge sliding in at 3rd.

Northumbria and Durham easily won their semifinals over Exeter and King’s College respectively. Oxford downed league rivals Cambridge 2-1 in the 5th/6th playoff while Bournemouth beat Lancaster 2-0 to claim 7th. While Exeter reaching the semifinals would probably have been viewed at the outset as a surprise, the fact of the matter is that they were at a very similar competitive level to Bournemouth, Cambridge, and Oxford and any one of the four would have been a reasonable semifinalist in this field.

From the perspective of the Exeter squads I coached, it was a very positive Final 8s experience. The men were underdogs throughout and had a major size disadvantage against much of the competition. Beating Durham in the 7/8 match was all about teamwork, defense, intelligent hitting, and outstanding support from the women’s team cheering them on.

The guys returned the favor for the ladies, who didn’t face the same physical mismatches (except perhaps against Northumbria). Even still, the women relied on teamwork, good serving, and strong defense to be competitive. They did not have the 1-2 hitters capable of getting consistent kills the way other teams did.

Coaching Log – Mar 16, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log.

The first order of business on the day was finding out the tiebreak procedure to be used in the case of a 3-way tie between teams in our group. As I noted in the last log entry, things were set up such that if we beat Bournemouth in our last match and King’s beat Cambridge, we would all be tied at 1-2 and level in the head-to-head comparison after having beaten each other.

Upon getting to the tournament site I asked the tiebreak question of one of the event managers. He said sets between the teams would be the next tiebreak. That meant if we won 2-0 we’d get second in the pool and a spot in the semifinals by virtue of being the only team among the three with a positive set differential.

I’d spoken with the captain about this prospect, but we both thought it was best not to say anything to the team. As I noted, there was already some signs the day before about getting a bit tense when things were on the line Saturday. The players already had enough motivation to draw on to get psyched up to want to beat Bournemouth. Adding a spot in the semis to that mix would have had nothing but downside to it.

I used the same line-up as the one which narrowly lost to Cambridge in the second match on Saturday. We got off to a good start in the first set and carried that through to a fairly comfortable win. The second set was much closer all the way through. We fell behind a bit, then dragged ourselves back level. The teams traded points for long stretches. At one point we missed 4 out of 6 serves, which irked me. In the end, though, we did managed to close it out and take the 2-0 win.

From there it was all about the King’s-Cambridge match. That one went 3, but King’s managed to win it in the end. We still hadn’t really said anything definitive to the players just in case I hadn’t understood the tiebreak procedure correctly. I was coaching the guys’ team in the 7th/8th playoff match when the team got the news they made the semis. Much celebration ensued! 🙂

Our semifinal opponent was Northumbria – defending BUCS champions. If anything, they looked a stronger team this year than the one I saw play a year ago. We didn’t stand a chance (only one other team in the competition did), so my focus was on getting playing time some way for all my bench players.

The first set had a very rough start. We gave up a string of points in a row with barely a challenge. I went with the starters to begin, and I honestly think they were a bit too keyed up for it. They knew what they were up against, but really wanted to make a few plays. Eventually, I was able to get them to settle down a bit during a timeout, but it was a rocky start and we never broke single digits. Northumbria used its bench in the second and I used all of mine as well. We managed to get I think 15 points in that one, so the team walked away happy.

We’ll have a couple of training session before the term ends, but this will be the last of log entries since the season is complete. After things have settled a bit I’ll post a season review with my thoughts on how it all went and what I thought of my coaching.

Coaching Log – Mar 15, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log.

First day of the BUCS Final 8s tournament in Edinburgh.

Our first match was against King’s College, first place team from the South Eastern conference. The team was in a pretty good mental space to start things off – maybe a bit of to-be-expected nerves at the start, but not scared at the occasion or the competition. We didn’t play poorly, but lost the first set by a reasonable margin. I made a couple of line-up shifts for the second – namely swapping our MBs in the rotation and bringing in a new OH. I think the latter was the more meaningful change as it injected some energy into things, which helped us win the second set. Unfortunately, King’s took the third. The team handled it well, but there wa a bit of tentativeness that worked its way into the team’s play in the latter stages which was a little concerning..

The second match was against Cambridge. We saw video of their first round match, so had an idea of what they were about. With Kings it was a “glad to be here” type of attitude in the team. With Cambridge, though, the focus shifted more to winning. That, I think, maybe led to a bit more mental pressure being felt by the group. They didn’t play with as much positive energy. It was a match of long rallies. We dropped the first set and struggled at the start of the second, but got in turned around and won that one. Unfortunately, we lost the 3rd.

At the end of the day we had a team meeting that focused on on-court energy. One of the players was really struggling with negative body language and poor energy. It was dragging on the team. Unfortunately, she wasn’t someone easily replaced in the starting lineup. A couple of the senior players had a lot of strongly worded comments on that, and we also talked about continuing to be aggressive and play positively.

We ended the day thinking we were going to play Bournemouth in our last pool match to determine 3rd/4th place, but I realized late we might still have a shot at 2nd. Bournemouth had beaten Cambridge the previous day, so if we beat them it would create a 3-way tie. I didn’t know the tiebreak procedure, though.

All-in-all, not a bad first day. We could have gotten a better result against Cambridge, but we were competitive in both matches. Coming from an attitude of having attained our primary season goal of reaching Final 8s and secondary one of showing we deserved we belonged, this was a solid outcome.

Building tournament expectations

BUCS announced the draw for volleyball Final 8s on Monday. Actually, they posted two different draws – first putting up one that was as expected, then a couple hours later changing to a surprising one.

Final 8s is played in pool fashion, with two groups of 4. The top two in each pool do a crossover set of semifinals as the progression toward the ultimate championship match. The 3rd place teams match up to decide 5th and 6th and the 4th place teams battle it out for 7th and 8th.

The initial Final 8s draw I saw looked very much like what I anticipated seeing. Teams from the same conference were separated and generally speaking the pools looked to have represented a pretty good split in terms of a reasonable seeding of the teams involved.

The new – apparently final – draw replaced the seed-based pools with ones based on a north/south split. That means no separation of conference foes. Since the Northern conference put 3 teams in Finals 8s in both the men’s and women’s field, it means they are practically playing a league round-robin to determine who advances to the semifinals. Why BUCS would do this I don’t know. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of trying to identify the best university teams.

The one positive about these pools is that they likely are more competitive this way. My impression is that the Northern conference teams are the strongest, so having them together and the relatively weaker teams from the other conferences together in the other pool likely makes for tighter group-play matches in the pool stages. Also, these pools kind of represent next year’s premier league groupings.

On the men’s side, we have Bournemouth in our pool. They won our conference (we came second). We lost both matches against them, though there was some good battling. The other two teams in the group are from the South East conference – UEL who came first, and UCL who finished second. UEL is a scholarship program, and they were semifinalists in the Student Cup, so they’re likely to be pretty good. UCL finished 10th in the Student Cup, which was actually behind teams from our Conference who finished lower than we did, so that’s clearly a match we need to think of in terms of being winnable if we play to our abilities.

On the women’s side, we again have Bournemouth in our pool. We actually finished level with them in the conference table on points, but they took first on a tiebreak. We split our two matches this season. Cambridge and KCL are the other two teams. Cambridge finished 2nd in Midlands, though might have been first if they didn’t have an administrative points deduction. They also took 4th in the Student Cup, so they likely will be a solid team, which fits with what I saw of them in Final 8s last year. KCL went undefeated in South East, but beyond that I don’t know anything about them. They didn’t play in Student Cup this year.

Interestingly, the schedule as it currently stands sees both men and women playing Bournemouth in the final group-round fixture. The teams will be battling for position at that point, so those matches could be very interesting and very intense.

The question I will have to address from a coaching perspective with the two teams is how to manage expectations and playing time. The considerations are different for the men and the women.

In the case of the guys we have a situation where the team has a quite young core group we expect back next season. That makes it easier to share playing time around without having to be too focused on results. As I noted above, the teams we face in our pool will be part of the premier league we’ll play in next season and we could face a fourth one in the crossover match, so we get a nice initial view of what that’s going to be like. Having UCL in our group perhaps gives us a chance to go for a better finish than might have otherwise been the case.

On the women’s side the story is different. There are only a couple who will be back with the team next year. That puts a premium on trying to get the most out of this campaign. Also, whereas the guys may simply be physically over-matched in cases, I don’t see that being the case with the women. Could other teams be better? Certainly! But I think the women are likely to be very competitive, especially since they serve and defend quite well, which goes a long way in creating tight matches.

In both cases, though, how I think things will play out based on an honest assessment of where the teams are at and how things actually unfold could be quite different. I need to have contingency plans to deal with potential developments. This isn’t just in terms of line-ups. It’s also in terms of dealing with team and player psychology. It can be a real challenge managing a team (or player) that goes into an event like this with a certain expectation, then has to face the realization that isn’t going to happen. Motivation is a major issue when the goal a team was aiming for is no longer in reach.

Of course as a coach I have to make sure I’m clear with the team and players about expectations and the plan. Things can change on the fly, of course, but there tends to be less trouble with upset players when they know how things are probably going to go. It also helps in managing performance expectations and dealing with negative developments.

Sometimes you just do what you can

In a prior post I talked about the luck of the Exeter men’s team I coached getting a walk-over in the BUCS round of 16 match. That gave us easy passage on through to Final 8s. We had a bit of a reversal of fortunes shortly thereafter.

Both the men’s and women’s second teams played Conference Cup quarterfinal matches. The draw actually worked out such that the same university was the opposition, and the host, for both matches. For the guys we fielded a nearly full-strength team. We lacked a libero, which did hurt, but otherwise we had a full compliment. It was an ugly match – especially since the refs made no ball-handling calls at all. We had a bad start, but with a few on the fly adjustments we were able to claw back from 0-2 down to win. That saw the guys on to the semifinals two weeks later, where we hosted.

The tough luck came on the women’s side. Because of exams only two of our regular players were available. There was also a young lady who started training with us just the week prior. We had to bring in three players from the club’s Intermediates group. One of them did some fill-in duty the prior term for South West league play when we were thin. The other two were completely new to the group, though. They were literally asked to fill out the team the night before!

Needless to say, you don’t go into a match in a situation like that with very high expectations – particularly against a team that had been playing together all season long, on their home court, and after they had won their first round match 3-0. On top of that, we had no middles!

So what to do?

I ended up putting the two regular BUCS players and the one who started training with us last week in a triangle to balance out the skill and experience. I put our tall BUCS outside hitter opposite the setter and had them both operate out of the middle when front row. The OH played 6 when back row, but the setter played her normal 1 position. The rest of the players just filled in around the other two.

That’s about the best I could do having never seen half the team play before. Whether it was the system or the players or what, we ended up doing surprisingly well. I’d expected a quick 0-3, and I get the impression the ladies were kind of expecting that as well. Instead it was a tight affair throughout. I think we never scored less than 21 and we actually won the 3rd set! Under the circumstances, a 3-1 loss of that nature was practically a victory.

The guy who reffed (one of the men who played in the match against our guys) made me laugh. He complimented the team on being really well coached. Hah! 🙂

Better lucky?

This falls into the category of “better lucky than good”.

Please don’t hate or envy me too much for what I’m about to tell you. 🙂

As I documented in my coaching log, the Exeter women’s team I coached in 2013-14 received a first round Championship playoff bye. That meant they went straight through to the BUCS Final 8s. Everyone else had to battle it out this week for the seven other spots. You may be aware that I also coached the university men. They too qualified for Championships this season by placing 2nd in their league. They were drawn in the round of 16 against a team from Northern Ireland.

Get this…

The men didn’t have to play their way into Final 8s either. The opposition forfeit (apparently their setter couldn’t go for the match). This meant a second year in a row finishing in the top 8 for the guys. And as with the ladies, the men also qualified for next season’s new premier league.

I asked one of the club captains if they’d made a deal with the devil to have this kind of luck. 😉

 

Coaching Log – Feb 10, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log.

This training session started with an announcement. We got official word earlier in the day that we’ve been granted a bye for the round of 16 of the BUCS Championships. This was a stunning development, and we’re not entirely sure how we got to be the beneficiary of this particular bit of league largess, and I’m sure there are other teams out there wondering why us. Regardless, we’ll go directly to Final 8s, meaning we’ve achieved the objective we had from the beginning of the year. It also means we have qualified for the new BUCS Premier League next season.

Naturally, that took up a bit of the start of training, shortening the effective session length. Given the announcement, I didn’t plan for a particularly hard or focused session, so instead did something a bit mixed with some fun elements.

After dynamic warm-up, I had the players do over-the-net pepper, using two groups of 4 and a group of 3. I rotated players around periodically to offset the harder work done by those in the group of 3. From there we went into serving. After warming up, I had them play amoeba for a bit of fun and competition. We did a best-of-5 as individual games with this group don’t tend to last very long.

At this point I had originally thought to do some hitting, but time remaining was starting to get limited, so I instead went with Continuous Cross-Court Digging, which I know the players like. After that, knowing we’d do some 6 v 6 play, I had them play Winners 3s on a 2/3rds width court as preparation. I then asked them which game they wanted to play. The two leading choices were Bingo-Bango-Bongo and Scramble. That should tell you a lot about how much this group likes to work in training since both those games are essentially continuous action. Scramble ended up winning out, and I had them go through six rotations.

At the end of the session I talked with them about key focus points moving forward – namely being more composed in scramble situations, playing with purpose, and being aggressive in our hitting. All of this is stuff that will be important come Final 8s. I also talked about the upcoming schedule for the second team, as they will have their Cup quarterfinal near the end of the month. Due to the injury last week, there needs to be some adjustments to personnel. I plan on bringing the serve receive work I mentioned previously into full force for next training.

Wrapping up the league season – mostly

Stage 1 of the BUCS season is over for 3 out of the 4 university teams I coach after the men’s 1st team played last night. The men’s 2nd team will still play 3 more matches at some point yet to be scheduled, but in the mean time the post-season will get underway (Division 2 teams – which includes both men’s and women’s 2nd teams – play in a cup competition which is not linked to league performance rather than a proper post-season).

The regular season for the two 1st teams sees both of them ending 2nd in their respective leagues, in both cases behind the same other university squad (same one who won both leagues last year as well). The guys ended 4-4 overall, which would have been 6-4 had a team not dropped from the league just last week. The teams that are finishing 2nd-4th all split with each other and lost both matches to the top team. One of them had an administrative point deduction, however, leaving us in a 2-way tie with the other and our set differential gives us the higher spot. This is exactly where the team ended last season, but that side went 8-2 with their only losses coming to the league champs. We lost most of that squad at the end of last year, so we knew it was going to be more of a struggle this season. To be honest, I thought we’d struggle to just qualify for Championships. We’ve been helped by the fact that the league has been a bit weaker this year.

As for the women, they went 8-2 overall. They split their matches with the other two top teams in the league and were unfortunate to lose out on 1st place through a tiebreak. This represents a significant improvement over the team’s 4-6 performance last year, and in a league that at least at the top end I would rate as stronger.

Both men and women now await their Championship first round playoff match-ups. Those should come out early next week. By coming 2nd rather than 3rd we should miss out on having to play the very top teams, but aside from that we don’t have a good idea of who we’ll play. There is also the question of elevation to the new BUCS Premier Leagues for next season. Those spots are based on final finish in the playoffs, but could require one or more playoff matches to be decided in the case of ties.

The women’s 2nd team looks to be taking 2nd in their Division 2 league. The guys 2nds are currently 3rd in the table, but with the potential to move up. Nominally, the 1st place teams in Division 2 are promoted to Division 1 next year, but the introduction of the premier leagues next season muddles that picture at this point. That means it’s possible that our 2nds end up promoted to Division 1 even without winning Division 2.

Both men and women continue to also compete in the South West regional club league. The women currently sit 3rd with their only losses coming to the top two teams. The guys have had some issues along the way and are stuck in a lower mid-table position.

In other words, a lot of volleyball yet to be played!