Early on Friday morning, Ballymoney Blaze set off on the longest and most historic trip in the history of the club when they left Ballymoney at 5am to make the journey to Dublin for their flights to Kosovo through Istanbul.
Unfortunately a 13 hour delay saw the squad arrive in Pristina with very little sleep. On landing in Kosovo the team were greeted like professional footballers with TV cameras and a delegation from the host club on hand.
As the teams arrived at the venue they were greeted by a crowd of hundreds creating an atmosphere which the players have never experienced in a club game. Coach McClenaghan urged the players to make it a memorable occasion, make the opportunity count, leave yourself with no ‘what if’s’ but most importantly enjoy the game!
Jeff Scott claimed the first point for Blaze as he used the block to his advantage by wiping the ball off it and out of play. From there the game was fairly even for the next sequence with both teams feeling each other out. At the technical time-out Blaze were down 8-6. This is were things started going wrong for them as the Kosovans used their power hitters to claim a strong run of points as Blaze let errors creep into their game. From there Blaze had a fight on their hands to get back into the game and despite some dogged determination and strong hitting from Jeff Scott and Adam Hunter it was not enough as the hosts claimed the set.
The second set was much the same as Blaze started well, fell away again in the middle of the set and then battled their way back late in the set, although it was not enough as the home side again claimed the set with their libero dominating the back court and laying off perfect passes to the setter who was using all of his options in a way that Blaze are just not used to playing against in the NI league. The key point of note in the second set was the introduction of 16 year old Ewan Rogers into the fray, the youngest player to ever play at this stage for any Northern Ireland team.
The third set proved to the best of the first day for Blaze as they dominated the early running by using set plays which the home side had never encountered before. Again though a strong middle section for the hosts was too much for the exhausted Blaze side who’s reactions were ever slowing due to the lack of sleep.
Again, McClenaghan urged his players to give it everything they had, and they finished the game strong knowing that despite losing 3-0 they could compete on this level.
The second match on Sunday saw Blaze coaches, McClenaghan, McCarroll and Bolton made some brave calls in their team selection, moving Hunter to the outside, Park to Opposite and White to setter before the game. The team started and continued in a much stronger form than the first game with Jeff and Matt Scott dominating the net in the early points thanks to a scintillating performance by 17 year Ciaran White at setter, who looked at home on the big occasion. It was still not to be though for Blaze as Skenderaj claimed the set 25-20.
In the third set Blaze went out all firing on all cylinders, great attacking play by captain David Park in the opposite position pulled the hosts out of their normally secure system, leaving their setter with few choices as to who could hit. Strong work by Aaron McKendry meant that even when they did get a hit, they were having to work hard to win a point.
Despite this the hosts proved too strong once agai claiming the set and securing a second consecutive victory.