A top-of-the-table clash at the business end of the season was the enticing prospect for the latest Meet Me At The Net trip to share the experience of Scottish volleyball in action.
Kilmarnock Volleyball Club were the hosts and the result of the feature tie between league leaders Kilmarnock Blaze and 2nd placed Glasgow Mets was going to be crucial, but with the visitors having 2 games in hand Blaze knew that a win to keep the top slot at the end of the regulation season was essential. This had all the makings of a classic.
Kilmarnock are perhaps best known as perennial challengers for honours, having been crowned Scottish league champions 12 times and cup winners on no less than 13 occasions. The current squad, however, is going through a degree of transition, the club having decided prior to the start of the last campaign to bring in new players and to shuffle the first and second team squads. The average age of the first team dropped considerably overnight. A second place finish in last year’s championship was viewed as this developing squad as better than expected, this year’s target is to at least match that result.
The club also took the decision to change coach for the start of the 2009/10 campaign with Gordon Welsh stepping aside to allow Stuart Edgar to take on the role. Both of these guys continue to be driving forces within the club and both made me welcome as we talked through the current strengths of Killie and the challenges it faces. One of the points Stuart was keen to make was that having a player/ coach is something he considers as not being ideal, but it is a situation that the club is used to, and he seems to be comfortable in the job with the obvious backing of his team.
The desire to win and compete for success is a big part of the ethos at the club, this historical winning record is an asset that helps drive all club squads forward. The success in providing a pathway for young players is, however, something that the club is rightly proud of. First team regular teenagers, Stewart Caldwell, Euan Duncan and Mark Lawson are testament to this. There are also 2 junior squads attached to the club and regular summer camps for S1 and S2 kids should help ensure this flow continues, indeed the hope is that a Killie team will soon compete in JNL. Even with this success the club remains committed to bringing more youth into the game.
As obvious enthusiasts these guys could have chatted all day about engaging youngsters in participation, the club’s funding success through the Awards For All scheme or the 16 coaches they had successfully put through UKCC accreditation, or a hundred and one other issues for that matter, but there was the small matter of a game to be played.
So to the game. Before a ball had been served both sides looked up for it and seemed to sense the significance of the game ahead. The first set was a pretty tense affair with points being fairly traded in the early stages including some impressive early hitting by Hubert Rychtelski of Mets. Blaze then took the initiative going into the first technical timeout ahead 8:5. With controlled passing and good use of their outside hitters Killie then surged to an 18:3 lead, forcing Mets into making a substitution with Ryan McLeod coming off the bench to replace Rychtelski. The visitors reacted well to the change and slowly brought back the deficit, but a couple of fast middle attacks controlled by Colin Giles, first behind his head and then in front, both pounded by Stewart Caldwell, saw Killie take the set 25:20.
The second set saw the arrival of Mets coach Mark Hudson and an adjusted Mets line up with McLeod moving to his more familiar opposite position. This was to prove significant in shaping the outcome of the match. The initiative this time started in Killie’s favour thanks to some tough serving by Colin Giles. At 10:9 the set was finely balanced until a poor ball in left Giles with little option but to pop a pipe ball to Welsh at 6, Gordon then gently rolled a soft angled spike to the floor on the Mets 3 metre line. To prove this wasn’t a fluke he then hit the exact same shot to take the lead to 12:10. Tough defence by Mets reduced middle options for Blaze before a fantastic long rally brought the game to another level. With both teams hitting hard yet managing to keep the ball somehow alive (including Colin Giles composing himself after a dive to pass from a sitting position) before a powerful back-court hit saw Mets take the lead 20:16. Blaze continued to fight back but didn’t seem to gain quite the control they would have hoped for in persevering with use of the middle and Mets went on to take the set 25:20.
The 3rd set was to prove the decisive one with the home team giving their all in the early stages. Giles was getting his hands to every pass and making great use of Edgar and Welsh through 4, the big guns were out. Points were swapped evenly throughout the whole set and the tightness in the scores was matched by an increased intensity on court. A marginal net-fault decision to take the game to 8:8 was contested, Blaze built a slender lead at 13:10 and an incident at the far antenna left the ref struggling to reach a decision before he called ‘keys’ and played a let. Two stuff blocks by McLeod and Krawczyk then swung momentum back towards Mets who then run a couple of points in serving succession to lead 18:15. Setter Giles then took vocal as well as handling control as he urged his team on before passing to Euan Duncan for a power-hit winner. Edgar then pounded the line to take the lead back at 22:21. Another visitor fight back saw Mets edge it 23:22 until Giles stuff-blocked a hit to the floor. At 23:23 it all hung in the balance until two successive points by Mets saw them take the set.
By such small margins are sets, games and league titles won. With the impetus of those closing points in the 3rd set Mets then settled to control the 4th, eventually running out comfortable winners by 25:19. As is customary I had to award a home team MVP and I know it will be scant consolation to Colin Giles to hear that he got my vote. It is premature to congratulate Mets, but this result looks likely to be a decisive one in ensuring that they go into the playoffs in top spot and with a league record that will makes them firm title favourites.
As always my thanks goes to everyone at Kilmarnock Volleyball Club, particularly to Stuart and Gordon for making me feel so welcome and for putting on such a fine display. A loss is always difficult to take and I know that it will hurt, but I can’t help but think that the best is yet to come from this Blazing squad (sorry)!
(Images courtesy of Guy Hinks Photographer: www.guyhinks.com)