Tag Archive for university volleyball

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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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.ย ๐Ÿ™‚

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.ย ๐Ÿ˜‰


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!

Coaching Log – Jan 30, 2014

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log.

Sometimes the hardest part of playing volleyball is staying focused against lesser opposition. That was certainly the case in our final two league matches last night. They were played against the same team because of some scheduling issues and after the first set it was pretty clear how things were going to turn out.

Our opposition on the night had a bit of a block and a couple of players who could hit a bit given the opportunity. They didn’t have much else. After a bit of a shaky period early on when there were some nerves, we settled down and effectively dismantled them. The second set of the first match ended 25-8 and things didn’t get a lot more competitive after that.

My main coaching focus after midway through the first set was keeping the focus and intensity up. Talking dropped off, especially in the second match. It cost us points in a couple of places, but not to the point of ever making things tight. In such a lopsided match those sorts of things aren’t punished, but obviously we can’t afford that in what’s to come. The team captain was saying as much after the match while talking with one of her teammates.

The two match wins sees us finish our BUCS league season 8-2 overall. That puts us atop the league table at present. Our two title rivals play each other on Saturday. One of them also plays the team we hosted last night. The likely scenario is that we end up in a 2-way tie for 1st (though there is a way for the other two to end up with 3 losses apiece). From there it comes down to the tiebreak as to who officially gets top spot.

I huddled the team together after we shook hands and told them how proud I was of them. I’ve been pushing them hard (and will continue to do so) and they’ve willingly accepted it. They ripped apart lesser competition this week, which is what top teams do. We need to get better in the blocking department and I want to see us hitting harder, but the foundation is there.

My biggest challenge over the next few weeks is nailing down our strongest line-up. We’ve got an OH who is pushing very hard to get into the starting 6 and some other considerations on positions and personnel that I’m going to have to evaluate. That’s why I get paid the big bucks, though, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

We don’t have anything on the schedule now until February 23rd, which is our next regional league date. Then it will be our round of 16 play-off match the week following.

Sometimes the wheels just come off

Once, when I coached at Exeter, I witnessed one of those seemingly inexplicable events which sometimes happen in volleyball. The university men I coached took on the defending league champions (and odds-on favorites that season) in a home match. The opposition was depleted by injuries and were a bit ragged to start the match. We were able to jump on them and take a relatively comfortable first set win (best of three).

Then the wheels absolutely came off.

The second set saw us make just about every error imaginable. Free balls were sent out of bounds. Hitters tipped the ball straight out of the court. Lack of communication caused defensive errors. The setter dumped a ball wide. Hitters tried to power balls low through double blocks, with predictable results. At one point, during a timeout, I told the guys it was like there was a force field on the other side of the court the way the balls we were playing over were flying long or wide.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Once, as coach of a 16-and-under girls team in the Regional Championship Juniors tournament during the pre-rally days we were 4-0 in pool play (played 2 sets against each other team) and were facing the other top team. We proceeded to lose the first set 15-0. Then, we turned around and won the second set fairly comfortably. Why did this happen? The girls were totally stressed out in the first set. They were thinking about winning the pool and it got them all tight. After that I focused almost 100% on keeping them loose and having fun. That team progressed to the semifinals, losing to the eventual champions.

In fact, even in the prior season the Exeter guys had a similar scenario against this same competition. Neither team was at full strength and in an ugly match we went up 1-0, then had a horrible second set. That pretty much did them in, as they lost 1-2.

Now, before I get on to what happened in the third set of this particular match, I should talk a bit about the line-up. I actually goofed before the first set and put the line-up in 3 rotations off from what I’d intended. Simple mistake of writing the numbers in with the wrong net orientation. We’ve all made silly mistakes like that at one time or another. Going into the second set I corrected things to the originally intended line-up. The idea there was to put our bigger MB along the front when their best OH was at the net. Clearly, it didn’t accomplish anything, so for the deciding set I switched back.

We actually got off to a good start and were up 10-6 or 10-7. Then things got tough again. At one point we had consecutive tentative errors in a the form of a serve into the net and a ball hit long. They allowed the other team’s best server to get back on the line and rip off a string of hard jump servers that did us in. We battled and were at 14-14, but couldn’t finish it off.

So what happened?

Fear took over.ย Simple as that.ย A clear indication of that is the change in our serving.ย In the first set we were putting them under pressure but in the latter parts of the match the serves became less aggressive.ย I’m not saying this was the only thing. We needed to do a long list of things better. That underlying psychology was the biggest factor, though.

A reminder of why I coach

Once upon a time it was term-end dinner for the Exeter University Volleyball Club. The year before I missed out because of a schedule conflict with a PhD event. I was also somewhat uncomfortable going out with my players in a social context with alcohol involved. You just don’t do that in the States. I attended the end-of-year dinner the prior Spring, and a couple other social functions between, though. That made me more comfortable and relaxed with it all. It’s good for team morale for the coach to go out with the players sometimes. You just have to ignore some things. ๐Ÿ™‚

This particular dinner provided a couple of those events that really reinforce why I coach.

The club gave out the traditional awards for all the groups involved – Beginners, Intermediates, and BUCS. I coached the latter, which are the competitive inter-university teams. I selected an MVP and Most Improved for the season to-date for the BUCS men and women. There was some back and forth among us coaches about the men’s selections. For the women it was a pair of no-brainers, though.

To say the choices for women’s MVP and MIP were popular ones is an understatement. Both announcements received with loud cheering from the whole club. Both players were clearly quite happy to be recognized. The MIP in particular was really excited. She came over to me afterwards to thank me effusively. Of course I said I expected even more from her second term. ๐Ÿ˜‰

On top of that, a couple of the exchange students we had that term came up to me near the end of the night to thank me. Both talked about how they kind of re-found their joy for the sport. They said they would look for opportunities to keep playing when they returned home (one to the States, one to Denmark). One also told me I was an awesome coach. What coach doesn’t like to hear that sort of thing? ๐Ÿ™‚

New BUCS volleyball premier league play for 2014-15

BUCS volleyball will be getting a premier league in 2014. Actually, it will be getting two of them on both the men’s and women’s side of things.

It’s been announced that there will be new 6-team premier leagues formed for the North and the South to begin next season based on how teams finish this year’s campaign. The Northern Premier League will be selected out of a group of teams from the Northern and Scottish leagues, along with the more northerly of the Midlands league. The Southern Premier League will be drawn from a group of teams from the South East and Western leagues, plus the more southerly of the Midlands league.

Promotion to the new premier leagues will be based on the finish in this year’s Championships. That works out to between 6 and 9 teams being eligible for each premier league, depending on which Midlands teams finish in the top 3 in that league. If more than 6 teams from one of the new premier league regions makes it to Final 8s then which teams get into the league for next year will be based on final standings. If fewer than 6 teams from a region advance, then those who lost during in the round of 16 will be subject to a play-off to decide who make the the cut (unless of course only 6 teams in total are eligible – such as in the case of all the Midlands teams being eligible for the other region).

Here’s the full details.

The question I have is how Championships will be run moving forward, and what the promotion/relegation mechanism will look like.