Monday, March 4, 2013

PRO VOLLEYBALL | David defeats Goliath

A small-town team shows it can beat an opponent studded with Olympic stars
  • CEV Cup Championship: Muszyna 3, Istanbul 2 (25-18, 1-25, 25-15, 22-25, 15-11)

In large swaths of Central and Eastern Europe, professional volleyball is a big deal.

Brazil's Paula (headband) attacks against Muszyna in the CEV Cup finals in Istanbul
Most major cities have either a men’s or women’s team, sometimes both. Crowds are often big (men’s matches can draw 12,000; women’s 6,000) and rowdy—think face-painted, drum-beating soccer fans at an indoor arena.

At the moment, however, the big story on the European women’s pro circuit springs from a very small town. That little club just snagged a prestigious trophy away from a team featuring three high-profile Olympians.

In most European leagues, particularly in Russia, Poland, Turkey, Italy and Azerbaijan, teams carry as many as three foreign players, including many from the United States. Former University of Washington All-American Courtney Thompson stars for Łódź in the Polish Premiere League; her former Husky teammate Tama Miyashiro is a libero for Azerbaijan’s Lokomotiv Baku (where she is a teammate of former UCLA setter Nellie Spicer.)

The big guns of the women’s European circuit, however, are in Turkey, where the team from Istanbul features a trio of imposing stars. Their marquee hitter is South Korea’s Kim Yeon-Koung, widely regarded the world’s best player. Another hitter is Brazil’s Paula, the sport’s dominant player before Kim ascended. And Istanbul’s setter is America’s Lindsey Berg, Courtney Thompson’s teammate at the London Olympics.

Just like in international soccer, championships are often two-match, home-and-home affairs. If tied (in wins and total points) after those two contests, the teams play a decisive “golden set” for the championship.

Last week, Muszyna pulled a 3-2 upset at home, setting up Saturday’s final in Turkey. Instanbul’s 6,000-seat arena was sold out; one Polish sportswriter described fans as “vulgar and fanatical.” Another Polish paper called playing before the partisan crowd “hell.” The Polish media claimed that the referee had to continually overrule the line judges, who allegedly kept making wrong calls in the home team’s favor.

And yet, Muszyna won. From press reports, it seems they allowed Kim to get her kills, but kept Istanbul at bay with pinpoint serving (including one 8-0 run) and inspired defense. There’s a lesson there, no matter what level of volleyball you might play or coach or watch.

There are a few more twists to Muszyna’s story. They club was started by a guy who was little more than a local club coach who loved volleyball. After spending years mentoring local kids, he helped launch a second-division professional club that has relentlessly climbed up the Polish League. With financial backing from a local bank and the wealthy owner of a water-bottling company, Muszyna climbed to the first division, then to the league championship (their final regular season match was a 3-2 win at home against Courtney Thompson’s Łódź team), and now to the second most prestigious European championship, the CEV Cup (the Champions League is tops.) It’s the first European Cup ever won by a women’s team from Poland.

Much like soccer, professional volleyball clubs can qualify for several tournaments. Muszyna now plays Krakow for the Polish Cup title (Courtney Thompson’s team barely lost to Krakow in the semifinals.) In two weeks, the Polish Premiere League playoffs begin, with Muszyna the clear favorite (and Thompson’s team among the contenders.)

As mentioned in previous posts, Volleyblog Seattle happened to be in Muszyna last month as part of a documentary we’re producing for this year’s Final Four in Seattle. Please visit our documentary blog for more details.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, that's clear. From the other article, I was hoping Courtney was on the winning team. No Americans or other players we'd know on Muszyna?


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