The Blues travelled to Hatfield on 16th November to play their second friendly match of the season in preparation for the BUSA National Championships qualifying rounds on Saturday 20th November. The awkward timing of the fixture meant that most of the squad were unavailable for selection, and CUVC travelled to Hertfordshire with only seven players plus coach Patrick Howorth.
Herts. immediately put Cambridge to shame with their superb facilities, including an electronic scoreboard, time-out buzzers and cleaning of the court prior to the game. Impressed but unbowed, the Blues lined up with Fabian Wagner setting, Andreas Malm as utility hitter, Carsten Dirksen and Alessio Ruggieri as middle blockers and captain Richard White and Pierre-Yves Couliard as outside hitters. Of this team only White and Dirksen could expect to command a place in CUVC's full–strength side, hence the match provided an opportunity for some of the Blues' bench players to shine.
The Blues approached the match as a two-set fixture in order to prepare for the format which would be employed during the BUSA qualifying round. It was immediately obvious that Herts. did not possess the same firepower as, for example, the Cambridge town side that beat CUVC in their last match. Herts. instead relied more upon consistent play from a squad of reasonable players with the cutting edge being provided by two strong hitters, typical of the majority of University teams. The Blues started reasonably, and it quickly became clear that the outcome of the match was in their own hands. The Cambridge middle blockers, Ruggieri and in particular Dirksen, all but cut out Herts.' middle option and left them with only the outside attack for most of the set. The Blues recycled the ball with some consistency, and Herts. were left to score the majority of their points through CUVC errors. Unfortunately these were plentiful, and coach Howorth called a time–out midway through the set specifically to chastise his players for the number of points that they were giving away through net contacts, penetration of the centre line and other basic infringements. Most of the Blues hitting was done through the middle by Dirksen, with the distribution to the outside attackers being of variable quality. Although they did not look convincing throughout, Cambridge sealed the first set 25–23 with a stuff–block by White one–on–one with Herts.' utility hitter.
Andreas Pick replaced Wagner as setter for the second set, which proceeded in much the same vein as the first. Consistent passing and some strong float serving from Dirksen and White gave the Blues the initiative, however Cambridge struggled to make good use of possession and also became complacent in defence. The CUVC block was also often poorly-positioned, giving the Herts. hitters an easy target to score points with wipe–offs and tools. This needlessly let Herts. back into the match, however the Blues always had more firepower when it was required and came through to take the second set 25–17. The two teams played on after the completion of the mini-match, with coach Howorth taking the opportunity to switch systems and field players in new positions. However Cambridge looked lethargic, and the faults of the previous sets were magnified to such an extent that Herts. were allowed to dominate without ever really forcing the pace themselves, with the Blues learning the hard way never to underestimate their opponents.
Although not a convincing victory, the match provided useful experience for some of the fringe players in the Blues squad. Dirksen was easily MVP with 13 points (5 kills, 6 aces, 2 blocks, kill ratio 0.357). Captain Richard White weighed in with 7 points (4 kills, 2 aces, 1 block) and the best kill ratio (0.444), whilst Andreas Malm also made 3 kills.
Coach Patrick Howorth said after the match "For me, the purpose of these two friendlies was to earmark any deficiencies in the squad before the weekend. Whilst I would have been delighted to win both matches comfortably, the performances have highlighted areas of the team that are weak. It was always going to be difficult with the depleted squad present last night, however both Carsten [Dirksen] and Rich [White] performed admirably considering the poor service they received. Both tried to lead from the front, however I felt that other, less experienced squad players failed to raise their game. The match should serve as timely reminder, of motivation and the ability to raise and maintain our game in the face of weaker opposition. In general it was good for some of our reserves to play last night, I feel that they now have a stronger understanding of what I expect from them and those concerned showed improvement from Saturday's match." CUVC wish to thank Herts.' Devrim Seber for helping to arrange the fixture and for his hospitality in getting us into the bar for beers and curry afterwards. The Blues travel to Norwich on Saturday 20th November for the BUSA qualifying rounds, where they will face Cranfield, UEA and Luton for a place in the last 32 of the National Championships.
Report by Richard White
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