Polonia SideOut relive domestic & European success
15th April 2021
With the excitement around volleyball’s long-awaited return building, the 2019/20 Men’s and Women’s National Volleyball League (NVL) title winners from each league are taking a trip down memory lane to reminisce on their triumphant season.
Mark Kontopoulos, Head Coach of Polonia SideOut London VC, looks back on what proved to be a very memorable season for the Super League side. Not only did he take a newly formed squad of athletes to the top of the English volleyball pyramid, but he also led the team to a historic silver medal at the NEVZA Club Championships.
Tell us a bit about your club, its ambitions and history.
Our team ‘Polonia SideOut London’ is the 1st team of Polonia Ladies Volleyball Club, which is a women’s and girls’ volleyball club which was founded in 1980 and is based in west and central London. The club has a long tradition of providing top-quality playing and competition opportunities and now has teams competing at all levels from international and the NVL Super League to various divisions in the London League and junior competitions.
Our team has the longest continuous presence in the top division of the NVL, where we have consistently ranked in the top two or three teams almost every year since 2010. We are also proud to be promoting the English women’s game overseas, with regular participation in international competitions, including the NEVZA Club Championships. We intend to continue to grow and develop partnerships that will allow our club and the sport to prosper both on and off the court.
How does your team’s 2020 title win rank against your club’s other major achievements?
In our more recent history, our major achievements include winning the Super League and National Cup double in 2011, the National Cup in 2010 and 2016, reaching multiple League and Cup finals and of course the silver medal in the North European Volleyball Zonal Association (NEVZA) Club Championships which we hosted in November 2019. Each of those successes were unique and truly special in their own way, given the sacrifices that were made by everyone involved, the immense challenges overcome and the breakthroughs that were achieved each time.
The 2020 Super League title win was special for a whole host of reasons. We started the season with a brand-new squad and, despite having a group of undoubtedly very talented individuals, it took a long time to mould into a strong unit, something that reflected in our results early on. We also faced plenty of other challenges, given that we were the only team in the top six that was not backed by a full-time university volleyball programme. This meant that we were entirely self-funded, training significantly less than our competitors and in many cases balancing busy lives as both parents and full-time workers in the hustle and bustle of London! We were also up against the strongest field of competitors I have seen in the league in my 12 years with the club as, for the first time, there were at least six or seven teams capable of beating each other at any time.
Despite all this, we stuck together and everyone made a huge amount of personal sacrifices both on and off the court, leading to our team’s first Super League title in nine years and some great memories made in the process!
Aside from winning the league, tell us about some of your favourite memories from that season.
Two stand out in particular.
Firstly, hosting the NEVZA Club Championships and winning the silver medal after a thrilling five-set final which saw us play some of the best volleyball I have seen on our shores, against a team that we had beaten a couple of days before in the pool stages. This was also the first ever international medal won by an English women’s volleyball team.
Secondly, the incredible turnaround we made on a back-to-back weekend of matches in Durham in February 2020. After the disappointment of a tough loss on the Saturday in the Cup, the way we quickly re-focused and channelled our disappointment into one of our best performances of the season the very next day is something I will remember for a long, long time. To my mind, this was unquestionably the turning point for our eventual title win.
How would you describe your side’s style of play and greatest strength? Did you have a star player?
I think one way of describing our style of play is “simple yet effective”. On the offensive side, even though we ran a very simple system, we were incredibly efficient thanks to an excellent passing unit and some strong and very capable attackers in all positions. On block-defence, we made a big change to our system during the first half of the season, something that led to even more simplification and much greater success, particularly when dealing with some of the very strong opposition we faced.
Our two greatest strengths on court were our offence as a whole – from the first pass through to the attack – and our service game where we were highly efficient in producing both direct points and easy transition opportunities while making very few errors.
Our greatest intangible strength was most probably the fact that every single member of the team had a clear and defined role that they knew very well and, perhaps most importantly, embraced for the greater good of the team. Without this, I have no doubt that we would not have even come close to any of the successes we had.
As for our star player… It’s like asking me if I have a favourite child!
Who was your toughest match against and what made them formidable opponents?
As there was so much depth in the league, we had lots of great matches against lots of teams, including Durham, Malory, Wessex and more. The single match that stands out the most however was our away match against Malory Eagles in the second half of the season. Malory came out all guns blazing, with some very strong hitters and a top-quality setter running a very fast offence that tested our block-defence. Despite our eventual 3-0 victory, the match was incredibly close and every single point was very hard fought, with some fantastic rallies and great quality volleyball played by both teams. The win was made even sweeter by the fact that we had lost quite badly to Malory in the first match of the season!
Which club was your favourite to play against, and why?
Durham and Wessex. Our matches against both teams are always tough and, from a coaching perspective, we are always fighting great tactical battles!
If you could pick any player, past or present, to join your team, who would it be and why?
Our performance analyst Hai-Binh Ly and I often discuss our Polonia SideOut London all-time “Dream Teams” and the debates are always fierce and fun, and of course bring back great memories of the amazing people and players we have had the pleasure of coaching at Polonia over the last 12 years.
So, given that we struggle to even choose our top seven or 12 players, I will cop out and choose a non-Polonia player and one of the all-time volleyball greats: Mireya Luis.
What are you most looking forward to about the NVL’s return?
Just getting back on the court and having a semblance of normality!
While I’m here, I would also like to congratulate and thank every single person that was part of our 2019-2020 season: Our players Aga, Ana, Ailsa, Connie, Duygu, Eszter, Giulia, Ilenja, Iulia, Kasia, Katya, Leah, Masha and Maya, our staff Vlad, Hai-Binh, Petros, Frankie, Clair, Anna, Irene, Hector, our sponsors SideOut and of course everyone else who helped, supported or contributed to our season’s journey in any way big or small! We truly could not have succeeded without the efforts and sacrifices of every single one of you!