Despite their victory, Cambridge lost the opening set 25-16Harry Normanton

An impressively co-ordinated Cambridge men’s volleyball team opened their season with a victory, coming from behind to beat Derby by three sets to one on Wednesday evening. It was a triumph of teamwork over individual brilliance, the Light Blues’ methodical, balanced approach winning out over a visiting side that relied heavily on star outside hitter, Cody Wood.

It was Derby who had the better of the early exchanges, though, as Cambridge struggled to deal with a barrage of vicious ‘spikes’ (leaping, overhead hits) from Wood. In volleyball, each team is allowed to touch the ball a maximum of three times consecutively. Typically, the first hit is used to defend the opponents’ shot, the next is used to ‘set’ the ball (push it high in the air), and the third used to spike it. In the first set, Derby repeatedly used this approach to devastating effect, in large part thanks to the powerful hitting of Wood. Sporting a red, blue and white bandana, the muscular Derby outside centre had a strikingly explosive leap, propelling his shoulders to the same level as the imposing 2.43 metre net. From there, he had the leverage to be able to thwack the ball anywhere on the court, and his aim was unerring. Again and again the booming arc of his right arm thwacked the ball beyond the Light Blues’ defensive dives. After the game, Cambridge captain Max Stammnitz explained the difficulty of defending against such an athletic player, ‘you have to wait until the very last minute because they can hit it wherever they want, and they commit very late’. 

In spite of Wood’s brilliance, Cambridge were able to hang on to Derby’s coat-tails for much of the opening period, before what Stammnitz described as ‘a little bit of a breakdown’ allowed the visitors to pull away, claiming the first set 25-16. The Light Blues’ captain put this down to the squad’s lack of court time together. The Light Blues have five new players in their squad this year, an unusually high intake, and volleyball is a game that relies above all on communication and co-ordination; during play the court echoes with a cacophony of calls, and even before points the players shout to each other about the alignment of their opponents, trying to figure out the best strategy for the next point. 

The Light Blues captain, Max Stammnitz, credits the team's strength in depth for their victoryHarry Normanton

If Cambridge were still finding their way in the first set, though, Stammnitz said his team did not panic; ‘even after losing that set, we never thought we would lose the game [because] we were much more balanced’. While their opponents relied heavily on spikes from Wood and had a squad of just eight players, Cambridge spread the ball around and were able to rotate between a squad of twelve, keeping all their players fresher. In the second set, their more varied approach began to bear fruit. Spectacular spikes from Stammnitz, player/coach Sam Dunbavin, and Pawel Budzianowski propelled Cambridge to a 12-9 lead.  After the match Stammnitz was quick to credit setter Gianmarco Raddi for his role in galvanising the Light Blues’ attack: ‘he had an amazing day… he set me middle balls so I could choose where I wanted to hit it, but whenever they tried to crowd the middle he was able to set the outside’.   Derby fought their way back to 13-13 through more strong hitting from Wood, but it was the hosts who held their nerve in the closing stages to win the set 25-20. 

The third set produced more tight, hard-fought volleyball. Little by little, though, they were beginning to negate their visitors’ biggest threat. Stammnitz and Roberto Correa Lafeber came up with some towering blocks (stopping a spike at the net just as it is hit) and libero Jirka Kucera produced several spectacular diving digs (sprawling, underarm stops). Still, Derby hung in the game, and the set was hanging in the balance when they called a timeout at 21 all. The Light Blues chose then, though, to produce their finest volleyball of the day. A cheeky tip (gentle prod over the net) from Pavel Budzimovski left three Derby defenders sprawling, then a huge spike took the score to 23-21 Cambridge. On the next point two blocked spikes eventually led to an unforced error from Wood, sparking visceral roars from the Light Blues.  They clinched the set with an ace on the next point.

From then, Derby imploded, a positional error throwing their formation out of sync for the whole of the fourth set. Perhaps this was one of what Wood would later lament as ‘young mistakes’, made by a team still gaining experience. But Wood too seemed to be tiring, unsurprising given his heavy workload for the whole game. Cambridge, meanwhile, remained calm and assured in claiming the set 25-14, and with it the match.

Afterwards, Light Blue captain Max Stammnitz said he was most pleased by his team’s resilience, after a frustrating 2016-17 season in which his side was relegated from the top BUCS division.  He put this down to two things. Firstly, excellent coaching from Sam Dunbavin, back after missing last season on a year abroad. Stammnitz says that Dunbavin reminds the team of ‘basic things you often disregard’, emphasising, ‘we don’t need to play [complex] Brazilian combination to rock this game’. Secondly, the Light Blues’ captain stressed the value of the new players: ‘Our team lives on its depth’. 

Cambridge:

Jirka Kucera, Gianmarco Raddi, Max Stammnitz,, Roberto Correa Lafeber, Tim Bitterlich, Sam Dunbavin, István Taisz, Jacob Buckton, Pavel Budzianowski, Richard Mihaylov

Derby:

Sih Hzu Lee, Michael Lee, Kamil Kempinksi, Sam Sudell, Nafi Wemsing, Daniel Cordon Contreras, Cody Wood

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