A perfect ending

Back in May of 2014, I coached the Exeter University women in the South West Championship tournament. It’s an event which brings together club teams of all levels from across the South West of England. That means squads from the South West regional league (SWVA) – which my team played in and took 3rd – as well as teams from NVL Divisions 1, 2, and 3.

A good case could be made that year’s field for the tournament was a bit weaker than the prior year. In 2013 I coached the tournament champions, Devon Ladies. They had played NVL1, and we beat our league champs in the tournament final. There was one other NVL1 team in the competition as well that year. In 2014 there was only a single NVL1 squad, a pair from NVL2, with the remaining 9 from either NVL3 or SWVA. One team was a group of players from a mixture of mostly lower levels brought together just for the Championship.

Format

The tournament format featured 20-minute timed games. One timeout per team was allowed, with no timeouts or subs inside the last 5 minutes. The winning team got 3 points. In the case of a draw, both got 2 points. If the losing team was within 25% of the score of the winner, they got 1 point. All teams played each others in a big round-robin – 11 total sets in this case – over two days. The top four teams advanced to the semifinals, which was also a 20-minute match. Come the final, however, it was best of 3.

The Team

The team I had available featured most of the first team from the BUCS season. That included our starting setter, one middle, both outside hitters, and our opposite. We also had our second team setter, as well as a middle and an outside from that team.

We had two trainings the week before the tournament. Neither of them featured all of the tournament squad. Before that, the players hadn’t done anything significant volleyball-wise since BUCS Final 8s. That was about 2 months before. Naturally, that meant while the team would generally play its usual style, they weren’t going to be up to quite the level they were at during the season. And of course it was important for me to rotate the playing time around. As a result, we wouldn’t consistently have perhaps the 100% best line-up.

Expectations

All things considered, I figured we’d be a mid-table finisher. Maybe with a lot of luck and some really good performances we’d be able to sneak into the semifinals, but we weren’t going to do much more than put up a good fight against the top contenders. Our strength throughout the year was strong defense, effective serving to keep teams off balance, and smart play which keeps hitting and other errors to a minimum. We’d basically played to our strengths, since we didn’t have the size or the type of hitters to take control of the match at the net.

As it turns out, we finished 7th – tied on match points for 6th, but with fewer points scored during play. In fact, were were only a single point behind the 5th place team. We beat all the other SWVA teams we’d beaten during the season with very little trouble. We also beat one of the NVL3 teams on the last point of the match, and lost to another NVL3 squad similarly on the last play. The match against the mixed team was a draw. We were well up, but got stuck in a rotation for a long string of points.

The NVL1 and NVL2 teams handled us without too much trouble. We came close to getting bonus points from them, but fell short by a single point in two cases. Our other loss was to the SWVA champs. That was a quite strong team which ended up winning the tournament. We did get a bonus point out of that match, though.

The results

As it turns out, 7th was a perfect finish given that we really didn’t have a shot at the semis. You see, the 5th and 6th place teams had to work the semifinals. By finishing 7th we got to head for home early!

The funny thing is we lost our last game on a service error. Had that serve been in and we won the rally – or had the horn come just a couple seconds sooner, ending the contest in a draw – we’d have finished in 6th. The tournament director joked to me afterwards about the serve being missed on purpose. 🙂

Of course, if just a point here or there in some of our other matches had fallen a different way we could have been as high as 5th. We were above all the teams we’d beaten during the SWVA season, as we should have been, and were right in line with the NVL3 teams. Only the top 4 teams in the competition (there was an 8 point difference between 4th and 5th place) were clearly better than us, which makes sense. While you’d always like to finish as high as possible, and certainly it would have been nice to end in the top half, I’m happy to have finished in a tight 5th-7th cluster (it was 3 points back to 8th).

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John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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