Ballymoney Blaze Volleyball club celebrated in style when they won the Northern Ireland Volleyball Cup.
Just weeks after falling at the final hurdle in the league, they competed in the Northern Ireland cup, a competition they haven’t previously won.
The day started out well for Blaze, coming up against the fledgling Belfast Olympia team who cruised to victory Division 1 of the league. However, despite the difference in league standings it was Olympia who started the stronger rushing into an early lead and causing the Blaze players to dig deep and find some of their strongest hitting options early in the day. Both Jonny Workman and Jeff Scott were finding their rhythm early and consistently throughout the game. With blaze coming away 2-0 victors.
The second group game was a local derby against a very inexperienced Coleraine team. Blaze used the opportunity to rotate their players, giving coach McClenaghan and libero McKendry the opportunity to get on court and play some attacking points. Despite a spirited display by the young Coleraine team, the strength and depth of Blaze showed through, as they won comfortably 2-0.
That set up a group decider for Blaze against a very experienced Team Zimmer, who were an amalgamation of current and ex-international players. Zimmer proved to be tough opponents, pulling ahead and staying ahead to take the first set. The second set was almost a carbon copy. Despite the pressure exerted by Callum Currie and Gavin McCaughern in attack, the Zimmer team were too strong winning 2-0. This pushed Blaze into second place in the group, meaning a playoff was required to get into the cup semi-final against a strong and experienced Polonia Wolves team who last year claimed the Plate trophy.
Blaze were in no mood to mess around, brushing the Lurgan team aside through clever setting by captain David Park and some excellent hitting from Adam Hunter. Blaze claimed a 2-0 victory.
In the semi-finals Blaze came up against Queens, the team who had narrowly pipped them to the league title. Queens were looking to maintain their unbeaten status and Blaze were looking to regain some pride. The game turned out to be one of the most hotly contested games of the day as both teams.
In the end, Blaze came away with a win on points difference after a 1-1 draw in sets, setting up a final against Bravo from Dublin, a team made up from some of the best players from the southern league.
This was the first time Blaze had made it to the final of the Northern Ireland Cup. Having come so close to getting there on so many occasions, surely this was their time, would they seal a cup win in their 10th anniversary season?
After a rousing team talk by Coach Johnny McClenaghan Blaze went out fired up, determined to bring the silverware back to Ballymoney. Blaze put themselves into a commanding 21-13 lead, needing only 4 points to claim the first set. At this point Bravo came back into it but after a timeout Blaze rallied and claimed the set 25-20.
It came down the the final set. The Southern side dominated, putting a gap of 5 points between themselves and Blaze, a lead they held up to 23-18. It was do or die for Blaze, they needed 3 points before Bravo could win two more. Fortunately for Blaze, the crowd were behind them and it was just like Fortress Dalriada. This spurred the boys on as they fought back to 23-21 and despite losing the last two points of the match the trophy was theirs.
As Captain David Park raised the trophy aloft declaring victory, Jeff Scott was named MVP for the tournament, cementing his place as one of the best players in the country.
Coach Johnny McClenaghan commented: “What a fantastic day for the club, to win the cup is one thing, but to win it in such an important year for the club means so much more. The guys absolutely played their hearts out, they left everything on the court and that’s all I can ever ask for as a coach. To come back from the disappointment of the league a few weeks ago to this is just incredible, I cannot praise the guys enough for everything they’ve done this season. But the planning starts now for next year!”
This is not the only silverware the club have claimed this year as a number of the club’s younger players also played in the cup for NI U17’s who went on to win the plate, a fantastic achievement for such a young team.
The Ladies squad, who after a disappointing league season, put all that behind them as they claimed the plate with some excellent displays from from a young and inexperienced team led by club stalwart Clare Scott and Zara Bolton. This is the second time in two years the Blaze ladies have won this plate and they’ll be looking to build on that in the coming season.