Mission accomplished: UEA Women and the Student Cup
25th February 2020
Tears of joy ran down the face of team captain Ioanna Patsourakou as the University of East Anglia (UEA) Women’s Team secured the championship point in the 2020 Student Cup final.
Defeat was looking probable as their opponents, the University of Leeds, had established a 14-12 lead in the deciding set. But a shift in momentum saw UEA claw back 4 successive points to snatch victory and claim the trophy on 2nd February.
For Ioanna and her teammates, the achievement was even sweeter as they had been in this position the year before when they lost successive sets to Essex in the final.
“It was a bit intense and emotional,” said Ioanna, a chemistry student who has played volleyball since the age of 10. “We were all crying, but happy at the same time.
“It was a really long day and in the final we were losing by 2 points in the 3rd set. So, to win that, it was just quite unreal. Everyone was a bit shocked when we won that last point. Last year we got so close to winning, so this year it was a relief to win.”
The Student Cup now sits proudly in the university’s trophy cabinet. It’s one of only a few volleyball prizes and, for the present squad, it’s been a long time coming. In both the 2015 and 2016 Student Cup competitions, UEA Women finished 15th out of 16 teams. They were absent in 2017 but returned stronger in 2018, securing 7th, before coming in touching distance of the trophy in 2019.
Such is the cyclical nature of university teams that UEA’s 2020 Student Cup glory couldn’t have come at a better time. By the end of this academic year, 4 key players will graduate from university and therefore be forced to leave the team.
“We’ve had a really strong side since 2017 when lots of new players joined the team,” Ioanna added. “From there we’ve been getting better and better.
“The majority of the team has stayed the same for 3 years now. We know the way each other plays a lot better than if we had players joining and dropping out of the team every year."
And UEA showed this quality in the 2020 Student Cup. On finals weekend, the Women’s Team maintained an almost perfect record en route to the final match – Cambridge were the only team to steal a set from them.
Ioanna said: “All the teams that we played on the first day – the Saturday – were an alright standard. They were good but our toughest game was against Cambridge. They’re a BUCS Premier League side and we play the division below, so I really thought it was a game we’d lose.
“We hadn’t played them before either, or seen them play, so we were a little nervous.”
Ioanna acknowledged that UEA were amongst the favourites to win the competition, and she said they simply stuck to their strengths to overcome Cambridge.
“We basically played our game. We knew that we had a strong line-up, so we tried not to make too many mistakes or to lose many points. Those were our tactics.
“It’s the same approach we had for the entire weekend. We just tried to win each game as it came, without thinking too far ahead. We did the same last year too: to play our best, not to play to win the competition.”
Compared to previous years, Ioanna felt that most teams were of a similar standard.
“It was quite nice this year. I felt the teams were more on the same level than a few years ago. You get teams like Essex, Durham or Newcastle, teams that play in the Premier League, whereas everyone else is in tier 1 or 2, so there will be a big difference. But I think this year it was more of a level playing field.”
Nevertheless, there’s no escaping the fact that UEA had one big advantage – this year’s Cup was held at the university’s £30 million Sportspark facility in Norwich. Not only were the indoor facilities familiar to them, but they had far less distance to travel too.
Looking to next season, UEA Women have a big headache to overcome when it comes to recruiting new players and assembling another trophy-winning team, as Head Coach Jose Mateo explained.
“With regards to the players who will graduate this June, we won’t know until next year how huge the hole left by their graduation will be. Victoria Ogonkova has been the starting setter since September 2015. Charlie Naadland and Amy Compton have also been in the starting team since they began 3 years ago, and Eden Chau has come into the team through the club ranks after she became the best improver in the club for 2 years in a row. They have grown so much, not just in terms of skills, but also what their personality has brought to the team.
“Volleyball at UEA relies a lot on the quality of foreign students, mainly from countries where volleyball is a mainstream sport. To replace that many skillful players will be a major job. We will see what the new arrivals next year, along with those players coming up through the different club levels, can do to fill that empty space.
“There is most certainly a mixture of sadness for the departure of players that have done so much for the club but also excitement for what the new ones can bring.”
But, before they reach that milestone, there’s an opportunity for a grand finish for the present squad. UEA Women were runners-up in the BUCS student volleyball competition in 2019 and, should they qualify for the final in March, they have the chance to bow out with another trophy to their names. Emotions would surely run even higher should that become a reality.