This post was written during my second season coaching at Exeter.

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. 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. 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.

The Exeter team draws

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 – first place UEL, and second place UCL. 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 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 King’s College London (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. That 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.

Expectations and playing time

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. We could face a fourth one in the crossover match. That means 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.

Preparation and communication

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.

To read the outcome of the tournament, click here.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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