Having achieved fifth place in the U18 Men’s National Championships, Exeter Storm were invited to the Volleyball England U18 Grand Prix event, for the top eight teams in the country.
At the first of two weekends in Kettering, Exeter Storm made a respectable start to the campaign. Their first match was against a very strong Wessex LeAF side. Storm knew they would need to play at a high tempo and keep errors to a minimum, to have any chance of winning. The setter, Kyle Mitchell, linked up well with his middle hitters, Dom Garside and Rowan Jeffries-Tolksdorf, to blitz LeAF with devastating quick attacks.
After taking an early three point lead, it was point for point. Whichever team edged this first set would have a big advantage going into the second, in this extremely psychological sport. Exeter Storm clung to their narrow lead right until the closing stages, but at 23-21 up, they couldn’t quite kill off their opponents. LeAF’s experience showed as they won the decisive points, to pinch the set 26-24. Unable to maintain such a high level of performance, Storm fell to a 3-0 defeat.
Not letting their earlier loss affect them, Storm were brimming with confidence against their next opponents, Black Country. It was a comfortable 3-0 win, with Storm never really needing to produce their best volleyball. Black Country had two big hitters, who did their fair share of damage, but not much else in their locker. The West Country boys outclassed their opponents in all quarters, to finish the weekend in second place in their group.
Exeter Storm arrived for the second weekend needing a win against Nottingham Rockets, group leaders and finalists in the National Championships, to qualify for the semi-finals.
Nottingham Rockets had already beaten Wessex LeAF 3-1 and boasted multiple England U21 players in their line-up, but Storm showed no signs of nerves as they stepped on court.
They met their toughest opponents yet with an inspired performance, to yield the most captivating match of the competition, so far. With the Rockets captain, Ieuan Lamb, dominating the back of the court, while Leon Chambers rifled the ball down the line, Storm had to produce their best volleyball for every point.
Storm found themselves in a familiar position of 23-21 up in the first set, and once again threw away their lead, to go down 23-25. Having learned from their defeat to LeAF, Storm returned for the second set with real determination and shifted up to another gear, which perhaps even they didn’t know they had.
Both sides played out of their skins, but Storm deservedly took the set 25-23. There could have been few complaints had the Exeter side been 2-0 up, but at 1-1 they still had a long battle ahead. A succession of errors early in the third set gifted Nottingham a substantial lead, which proved to be insurmountable. Although Storm didn’t go out without a fight, they were unable to maintain the intensity they had previously displayed, and lost 18-25 in the fourth set.
The 3-1 defeat to Nottingham Rockets meant they missed out on a place in the semi-finals and would face Richmond in a 5th/6th place playoff. Richmond proved to be a well organised opposition, with incredible defensive capabilities, so this was another tight match. Storm were always in control of the first set, but only just edged it 30-28. A more commanding offensive performance made easier work of the second set, which finished 25-14. The long rallies began to take their toll as the match progressed, with Storm having to expend a lot of energy to break down Richmond’s resolute defence. A weary Storm were unable to close out the match in straight sets, dropping the third 23-25, and Richmond would now fancy their chances. Exeter Storm dug deep for one final big push, before their involvement in the competition came to an end, and were rewarded with a 25-19 win.
Nottingham Rockets and Wessex LeAF will meet in the final next month, after semi-final wins against Boswells Blaze and Chadwell Heath, respectively.
Exeter Storm’s boys have now finished fifth in both the U18 National Championships and the U18 Grand Prix, against opposition that train five to ten times as much, receiving plaudits from match officials, spectators and opposition coaches throughout both competitions. With the national junior competitions over for the season, some of Exeter Storm’s players still have the Inter Regional Championships to look forward to, where they will be representing the junior SW team.
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