Ballymoney Blaze go fishing for Sharks

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BALLYMONEY Blaze Mens’ first team were in action against Bangor Sharks.

They travelled down to Bangor to take on the strong attack and resilient defence that is Bangor Sharks. Blaze were going to this away fixture being the favourite as the previous two times these teams met blaze came out victorious 3-1 at Fortress Dalriada in the league then 3-0 at the final of Blockbusters at the start of December.

It was clear from the warm up that something was missing on both sides of the net regardless of the hits going in. Then suddenly as outside hitter Jeff Scott graced the air with his presence tried possibly a little too hard smashing the ball into the top head band and dislodging the post from its socket. Referee Vincent Ramirez had no option but to postpone the warm up until the court was ready for use again.

Set 1 - After the start stop warm up the match begun. From early on you could see the Blaze team tired from the journey were struggling to find their feet in serve receive as the first point was won with an ace from Sharks’ setter.

Some words of encouragement from Johnny Workman saw the next pass given perfectly to setter David Park to commence the blaze offence. Although this was not an overly close set with both teams making constant errors but it was Blaze who managed to keep their cool especially Blaze new international signing Jonas Stoll who was looking impressive in serve receive. Blaze managed to take the set 25-18.

Set 2 - At the changing of ends player/coach Jeff Scott made clear he wasn’t happy at all with how the team had performed and demanded much more in the second. The team agreed. Also, with the help of the unofficial team psychologist Emma Kennedy, Blaze went onto court with a reignited fire in their stomachs.

This was a much more hotly contested set with both teams matching each other point for point. With the paramount hitting power of Bangor giving Blaze’s defence much to think about but it was blaze who reached set point first at 24-23 but this was to be a marathon not a sprint.

When Blaze launched an attack to take the set Bangor managed to counteract this display of assertion with skills in back court defence bringing the set back level. Three times Blaze got to set point but it was Bangor who managed to reach the finish line first with a big set score of 31-29.

Set 3 - This was to prove to be a battle of middles in this set, playing mental games with each other and drawing the blocks to leave the wings in 1-on-1 situations. Again the set was proving to be close but it was Bangor who managed to create a gap but not even Ballymoney’s Stephen White could help the team to even out the set. This resulted in a 25-22 set loss for the visitors.

Set 4 - With a deflated Blaze team taking to the court it wasn’t long before the Sharks stepped up and takes jurisdiction of the set. Blaze just had no answer for the heavy duty offence from the outside attackers.

It was late in the set (20-14) when the Blaze team were all thinking the match would be over very soon with Bangor giving Blaze their 2nd loss of the season.

Then like the phoenix that rises out of the ashes Callum Currie stepped up the line to serve, blocking out the noise of the home supporters to do what he does best, target the setter with a hard float serve.

This proved problematic for the Bangor side being unable to launch their dominant attackers, meanwhile libero Johnny Workman thought happy days as he was passing with greater pin point accuracy than a tornado jet. This all came together to form an exciting end to the set as Bangor was becoming increasingly frustrated and ended with a strategically placed serve from Jason Smith to hand Blaze the fourth set 26-24 and the guarantee of at least 1 league point.

Set 5 - Bangor won the serve to start the 5th set with Blaze instantly taking the side out from combining the basic movements of a dig, set and spike to win the point.

True to match form Bangor managed to side out bringing the score to 1-1. It was a worrying sign that this would be another marathon set as neither team showing dominance to string together a run of points.

Then Jeff Scott stepped up to the line and was thinking about the words of Dr. Ian Walker advising him to simply float serve rather than go for a jump serve.

These words proved extremely effective as Jeff pretty much served the set out as the Blaze defence and offence did nearly nothing in this set. Well the set finished 15-1. The match finished with a 3-2 win for Blaze. This was the 5th 5 set match in the last 6 games putting Blaze top of the league but with Richhill having a game in hand.

Blaze captain David Park said: “I’m still really confused about what just happened in the 5th set there, if we can win 15-1 in the last set then why can’t we win more 3-0 games. This has given us much to think about and all will become clearer when we watch the match footage and take stats of what we see.”

* Blaze battle back in classic!

Wednesday night brought together the top two teams in the NIVB Men’s National League, the home team Ballymoney Blaze, off the back of a comfortable win in Lisburn, and Richhill Raiders who suffered a shock to the system in losing to Jordanstown in their previous match.

A large crowd that had gathered, bringing plenty of noise in anticipation of this mammoth clash were not disappointed as these two giants served up one of the most exhilarating matches in recent times and certainly left the title race wide open.

Blaze were hoping to capitalise on Richhill’s recent slip up, knowing that a 3-0 or 3-1 win would send them to the top of the table for the first time this season, while Richhill were looking to get back to winning ways to re-establish a more comfortable gap.

The visitors couldn’t have asked for a better start, consistent in attack against a Blaze side that was tentative and littered with mistakes. Wilson Greenlee’s powerful jump serve was an important factor in Raiders opening up a substantial seven point lead early on in the first set.

This was an important cushion as from then on the Blaze boys were able to pick up their game and trade points with their rivals, with each team bringing the best out of each other as the errors diminished. Ballymoney though, found it hard to gain any sort of momentum, and Raiders ran out easy winners of the first 25-18.

The second set started in much the same fashion, with the powerful Armagh outfit asserting their dominance. Along with setting skilfully, Raiders’ captain, Mark Fulton varied his serves well, leaving the Ballymoney passing unit scratching their heads as to what they should do about it.

So again it was pressure from strong serves that was paying dividends for Richhill. Ballymoney’s sole bright spark was opposite Jeff Scott, whose powerful swings were often good enough to beat a tough block.

This though was bettered by Raiders’ use of well drilled back court plays, leaving the Blaze block defenceless to commanding attacks from Mark Hazley, also with Peter Stewart running convincingly in the middle the Raiders wing attackers were often left only facing one block, which they were able to continually make the most of, varying their attacks, combining intelligent tips, wipes off the block and big kills to win the second 25-16.

It seemed for all the world that Raiders would record a routine win as Blaze simply hadn’t got started, but from the start of the third set, it was clear that there was a big attitude change in the team from Fortress Dalriada.

A tactical switch, swapping Jeff Scott to outside and Callum Currie to opposite, was smart on Ballymoney’s part as it gave the Raiders’ blockers something new to look at and put Scott in his preferred position, where he could inflict most damage.

Blaze started to develop some momentum and with the crowd behind them, they were able to put the pressure on Richhill who were beginning to show the first signs of weakness, with several shanked passes on service reception throughout the set.

This led them to call their first time out 16-10 down to a resurgent Blaze. The home team continued to push. Good use of dump balls from setter David Park and first-class blocking ensured that Blaze had what looked like an unassailable lead at 20-13. All the good work though was almost undone as Richhill slowly crept back into the set, bringing the score as close as 23-21.

There was clearly tension and nervousness amongst the Blaze team at this stage, but a big kill from Jonny Workman and an inaccurate spike from Raiders’ opposite, Peter Lundy (who had earlier limped off in the set, only to come back on) ensured that Blaze would take the game further.

The fourth set was almost a carbon copy of the third, as Blaze raced into an early lead helped with strong serving from Blaze 2 Matthew Bertenshaw. Richhill were clearly crumbling under the consistent pressure from Ballymoney as misplaced passes put Fulton in some awkward positions, forcing him to make some uncharacteristic handling errors.

Even when he was able to produce a good set, the hitters were seldom able to finish off attacks, thanks to stellar back court work from the Blaze defence, and in particular Ballymoney’s Libero, Aaron McKendry who steadily improved right through the game.

The frustration was clear in the Raiders team as they were near to blowing a two set lead; one of their players was yellow carded for some petulant behaviour, turning things from bad to worse for them. Blaze were visibly able to benefit from this, playing simple but effective volleyball Currie slotted nicely into his newly found position, and Blaze’s star man on the night, Jeff Scott constantly killed sets from Park, which helped Blaze win the fourth 25-16.

It was all to play for in the fifth set. Blaze were the favourites, on the back of the last two sets, but Richhill wouldn’t go down without a fight, which was evident as they quickly gained a four point lead at 5-1. Blaze knew that to stand any chance of winning the set they’d need to be in touching distance at the change of ends.

Persistent attacks and defensive vigilance allowed them to trail by only two points when the teams changed sides. Richhill were able to win the next few points with a few big kills from Stewart, but Blaze middle Stephen White was able to string together five strong serves in a row to tie the game up at 11-11. With the impetus, Blaze were unrelenting for the remainder of the set, working tirelessly to make sure no ball hit the ground and making the most of every set they got.

A final mistake from Raiders on match point finished off the match and left the Blaze team and supporters jubilant as it was the first time they’d recorded a win against their fierce rivals since the first match of the previous season. The win propelled Ballymoney to just within a point of Richhill, ensuring an enthralling end to the season.

* Ladies seconds

Queen’s B started off strong with a long rally for the first point, ending in Queens winning it. A great performance from our setters, Megan de Jode and Emma Johnston, while our middles Ellen Yates and Abi Miller made some fantastic blocks.

Unfortunately Queen’s were able to scrape a few points and win the first set. The 2nd set didn’t start off as well, but with several powerful hits from Izy Ross brought us back into play! Queens again were able to gain a few points from their serves. As the set progressed Aoife Cameron-Mitchell and Corrie Donaldson passed brilliantly! Also Ellen Yates jousted well and Megan de Jode made some great tips! However The 3rd set was tight with Queens winning the final set at 25-19.