This post is from late March 2014, the end of my second season coaching in England.
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 alternate 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 compete. They did not have the 1-2 hitters capable of getting consistent kills the way other teams did.
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