Walbrzych, Poland, June 12, 2018 - It was all about Malwina Smarzek, again, as Poland thrilled their home crowd with a tense five set win 3-2 (18-25, 25-15, 25-16, 21-25, 16-14). The victory was much needed as we come towards the end of the round robin stage, but moving to the next stage of the competition is already out of their hands.
Poland had won 10 of their last 14 world level tournament matches on home soil but will be pleased and relieved to extend their VNL winning streak to five. We have learnt that a large percentage of the ball does go to Smarzek but you cannot argue with her 33 point haul (29 attacks, 4 blocks). Now past 300 points she extends her lead at the top of the women’s scoring charts (84 ahead of second place Tijana Boskovic of Serbia on 238).
Other big point contributors here were Natalia Medrzyk with 16 and middle blocker Agnieszka Kakolewska with 14, but the key to the match was when the whole team pulled together after losing a big lead in the fourth set to see it home in the fifth.
Giving away 15 cms in height between their tallest players, Japan were up against it at the net, losing out in attack (67-75) and block points (15-7). Coach Kumi Nakada will have been hopeful of a third successive win and shuffled her pack well to try and achieve it. Top scorers for Japan were Sarina Koga on 19 followed by Haruyo Shimamura and Ai Kurogo both on 14 points.
Japan lead the head to head 14-7 so Poland will be happy with their evening's work. Both teams are back on the court tomorrow when the hosts will take on European rivals Russia, while Dominican Republic will face Japan just before in Walbrzych.
There was nothing to choose between these two teams in the first set, which could have been expected as they sit next to each other in the table both on W6-L6. Poland led by one at the first technical and Japan led by one at the second and went on from there.
Poland Coach Jacek Nawrocki always wears his heart on his sleeve and gave a passionate speech to try and turn things around but Sarina Koga continued to score at will establishing a lead at 22-17. Russia fresh from their win earlier over Dominican Republic watched on studying their opposition for the next couple of days. Sarina Koga with the set winning spike, wiping off the block through position two.
With the statistics showing that 60 per cent of serves from Poland were going down to position 5 there was clearly a perceived weakness that they were trying to exploit. “Polska” had a 5-1 lead at the start of the first which they could not make stick, but in a similar situation in the second they did just that. Captain Agnieszka Kakolewska also came to the block party as we approached the interval, getting her a few more to extend her lead at the top of the VNL stuff blocks charts. With an eight point lead and Smarzek in top form the set was secured early on – signed sealed and delivered with an ace by Natalia Medrzyk.
Ever impressive, Japan showed excellent defence controlled by Libero Kotoe Inoue and this provided a platform to get ahead early in the third but it soon swang the other way with Smarzek guiding her team to a commanding 20-13 lead. As she took a well deserved rest it was Natalia Medrzyk who got the job done – ending the set 25-16.
With momentum very much with Poland, it seemed that so was the luck. Smarzek appeared to be blocked at 5-1 in the fourth but stuck out a foot and the ball bounced off it over the net and into a space – quite remarkable! Marlena Plesnierowicz was distributing the ball well and cleverly feeding Smarzek when the opportunity was there, also scoring a lovely second touch attack herself once they reached double figures (10-5).
The Polish substitutes were dancing with the crowd with 10 points still to go, which proved to be premature as with Koga serving Japan took six straight points to get within one (16-17). Then led by Ai Kurogo they completed the comeback and before the home crowd of 2,300+ knew it we were all square at 2-2.
Japan have won eight of their last nine five-setters in world level major competitions and both of their five-setters in the VNL so were rightly confident. With neither side able to carve out a lead of any significance it went right to the death when we got the rally of the match at 10-10 lasting 37 seconds and it went to the home side, again Smarzek with the winning swing.
The Asian champions levelled again at 13-13, but two unforced errors (first with the serve and second with the attack) from Japan resulted in the celebrations starting all over again for Poland.