Back when I coached in England, the Volleyball England Student Cup was a pretty big deal. It was something all the top university teams – and those with ambitions – wanted to win. That’s no longer the case, however.

The Cup structure

BUCS is the UK equivalent of the NCAA, and most of the teams who play in the Cup come from there. At the same time, though, the event sometimes also features teams from Ireland, the national youth academies, and other structures. Basically, the requirement to play is that the team comprises full-time students.

The Student Cup is actually structured similarly to USA Volleyball Junior Nationals. By that I mean there is a series of qualifying tournaments through which teams earn spots in the finals tournament. Those qualifiers happen at several different places in November. The Finals are generally the first weekend of February, or thereabouts, and take place at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

My experience with the Cup

Back in my time it was teams like Durham and Northumbria playing in the women’s final, and Northumbria and Bournemouth in the men’s final. Those were the same teams that featured in the BUCS finals. At the same time, though, you saw up-and-coming programs like Nottingham, Essex, and East London (UEL) starting to make a name for themselves.

In 2012-13 and 2013-14 the Exeter men’s teams I coached qualified for the Cup finals. Unfortunately, I got sick right before that tournament my first year, so missed it. The second year the program decided not to accept the bid for financial reasons.

The Exeter women missed out on qualifications both years. Unfortunately, each year we had starters who couldn’t make the tournament, so weren’t as competitive as we could be. As a result, my coaching focus was to get playing time to everyone who did make the trip, and to play around with different line-ups for future application in BUCS competition. I wrote about this in an entry in my 2013-14 Coaching Log.

In 2014-15 neither the men nor the women played in the Cup because of the expense involved. And because both were already getting a bunch more competition through the South West regional league.

The fading

In the last few years the Cup has lost some of its luster. As I noted, in my time the top BUCS teams battled out for the title. That’s no longer the case.

Here are the top four finishers each year since 2012-13.

2012-13 Men: Northumbria, Bournemouth, LeAF, Loughborough. Women: Northumbria, University of London Union (ULU), Durham, Loughborough

2013-14 Men: Bournemouth, LeAF, UEL, Queens Belfast. Women: Durham, ULU, UEL, Cambridge

2014-15 Men: Bournemouth, UEL, Durham, Essex. Women: Durham, Essex, UEL, University College London (UCL)

2015-16 Men: Bournemouth, Durham, Oxford, Essex. Women: Durham, Newcastle, Bournemouth, UEL

2016-17 Men: Essex, Bournemouth, Nottingham, Newcastle. Women: Newcastle, Essex, Nottingham, Oxford

2017-18 Men: Essex, Liverpool, Sheffield, UEA. Women: Bournemouth, Essex, Newcastle, Oxford

2018-19 Men: Essex, Reading, York, Oxford. Women: Essex, UEA, UCC, Cambridge

Notice how Northumbria is no longer in the results after 2013-14. This is not because they dropped off in quality, because they have continued to challenge annually for BUCS championships. They simply decided the Cup wasn’t worth them doing any longer.

Durham held out for a few more years before they bailed. Bournemouth lasted a little longer, but have dropped as well. We haven’t seen LeAF (a national youth academy) since 2014-15.

The 2019-20 Cup

You’ll notice how Essex has come on in recent years. Last year they won both the finals. This season they became the latest of the top programs to skip the Cup. Nottingham and Newcastle are two other programs that show up in the list above, but didn’t take part this time around.

Here’s the top four this year.

Men: Coventry, York, Staffordshire, Leeds

Women: UEA, Leeds, Cambridge, Oxford Brookes

To give you a sense of how far the competition has slipped, only one of the teams listed above are current members of the Premier League, which is now the top level of BUCS. That’s Cambridge on the women’s side, and they finished the regular season 5th out of 6 in the Premier League South.

Why?

So why have all the top teams dropped out?

There are a number of factors, but probably the leading one is that it doesn’t count toward their key measurable – BUCS points.

You see, the top programs compete aggressively to be the top university sports program in the country. This is measured by BUCS points. Those points are awarded based on where each of a university’s teams finishes in their league, and how they do in the BUCS cup competitions. The Student Cup does not factor in that. As a result, it’s an easy thing to drop if it’s not seen as providing high value.

Of course, it’s a vicious circle. A factor in Northumbria’s reason for dropping out was lack of meaningful competition in the Cup – at least until the semifinals/final. Naturally, their departure dropped the competitive level for everyone else, changing the math for them as well. Every time another top program left, it made it harder to justify staying for the remainder.

Now you see the inevitable result – a situation where none of them are left anymore.

And it isn’t just the top teams who employ this kind of math. We basically did the same thing when I was at Exeter.

Please note, I’m not writing this post with any intention of belittling the success of this year’s winners, Coventry and UEA. After all, you can only play the team in front of you. And you still have to win a bunch of key matches to be a champion. They should be proud of their accomplishment.

It’s just a bit sad to see how a competition that was once a really big deal for everyone – and has an interesting history – has slipped from that position in recent years.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Men's & Women's Head Volleyball Coach at Medaille College, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy (formerly Charleston Academy). His previous experience includes the college and university level in the US and UK, professional coaching in Sweden, and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. Learn more on his bio page.

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