Sofia, Bulgaria, June 2, 2018 - A straight sets win for Australia (25-23, 25-23, 26-24) sees them make history as Lincoln Williams top scores again with 15 points. Speaking after the game the big opposite hitter explained that the VolleyRoos “always have the belief that we can win” and that their “fighting spirit made the difference today”.
With the error count on a similar number for both teams and each set being decided by just two points it is fair to assume that the Australians won the important points when it mattered in each set. The travelling side also fared much better in the spiking department than their opponents (38-28), largely due to the conversion rate of Williams through two. Other key performers were Paul Sanderson (10 points) and Luke Smith (9 points), while the Libero-Setter combination of Harrison Peacock and Luke Perry were consistently brilliant through-out the match.
Bulgaria will look at the match and conclude that they under performed, but in the blocking department they actually doubled the number achieved by the victors. In total seven players scored with at least one block over the three sets. Nikolay Uchikov top scored for the home side with 11 points, closely followed by Nikolay Penchev with 10, but it is the loss of setter Bratoev which will hurt them the most.
Prior to their meeting in Sofia, the closest Australia had got to beating Bulgaria was a 2-3 loss in the 2016 World League and as they were yet to take a win in the inaugural Volleyball National League many of the fans in the Bulgarian capital would have been expecting a different outcome. This match also broke a pattern for Bulgaria who have alternated between winning and losing over their last 10 world level matches. To conclude the weekend, Australia will face Serbia tomorrow while Bulgaria will take on Russia.
Set one started with both teams exchanging spikes along with the lead, but neither team able to establish a considerable gap. That was until they reached the twenties when the away side took a firm grasp on the direction of the set, led by their setter Harrison Peacock.
Bulgaria successfully challenged a touch at 23-18 to avoid facing set point and came back with some strong blocking through Iliya Petkov, but a service error by the same player led to a first chance for the Australians. Their big opposite Lincoln Williams then had a swing through two for the set but was put down by a big Bulgarian block, then up stepped Luke Smith to pass and hit a winner from the pipe position and the team in gold took the first set 25-23.
Tensions rose at the start of the second set leading to an Australia yellow card for Sanderson at 5-5, but they soon composed themselves to lead by one at the first technical. With both teams fighting hard the crowd enjoyed a monster block on Williams as the set reached double figures. They also rose to their feet when Svetoslav Gotsev produced a moment of magic to tip from position 4 to position 4 to tie the game again for Bulgaria at 14 all. This seemed to inspire the home side, who knew that the Australian side were yet to win more than a single set in any Volleyball Nations League match to date, as Bulgaria led 20-18.
From here their plan seemed to come undone as errors crept into their game. With the Australians ahead the Bulgarian blocking came to the fore again to level 23-23, however a Bulgarian attack onto the net band gave Australian Sanderson a chance to serve for the set, which he did with an ace to the floor, redeeming himself for the earlier card.
Bulgaria’s situation went from bad to worse early in the third set when their setter Georgi Bratoev landed on an Australian blockers foot and turned his ankle at 7-6 to his side. It is yet to be seen how long he will be out for, but in came Georgi Seganov as the crowd clapped off their departing number 1. Allso in for the third was Bulgarian number 8 Todor Skrimov who took control of proceedings with a couple of aces to take a 16-13 lead at the second technical.
At 19-17 the crowd were treated to a mega rally as Bulgaria threw everything they had at their attack, with Australian libero Perry producing a couple of moments of magic to keep the ball in play before the team in Gold could no longer find the answer. In the twenties, Bulgaria thought they had the set under control at 24-22, but control was what they were missing as the pressure mounted on the home side and errors ended up gifting the set to Australia for their first Volleyball National League victory.