Italy's journey to the U20 Gold
The Netherlands and Belgium were hosts of the much anticipated FIVB Women’s U20 World Championship. From July 9 to 18, the best teams in the World met on the courts in Rotterdam and Kortijk, to decide which the best team was.
I had the pleasure to follow the games on site. As many as 64 matches were played across eight competition days to eventually have Italy emerging as Worlds champion. The team of head coach Massimo Ballini finished in the tournament without a single loss, losing only two sets (in both their matches against Poland) on the way to the title. An outstanding achievement will be remembered and that puts the Italian players in the spotlight of the future of women’s volleyball.
The road to the Gold
Italy started their quest for the Gold medal after having lost their opportunity to become World champions in this age group two years ago when they lost to Japan in a five-set thriller.
However, Italy entered the courts in Kortijk and Rotterdam with a completely new roster. Only the outside hitter Loveth Omoruyi (25/08/2002) took part in the 2019 Championship and remembered the disappointment of losing the Gold just one step before the reaching the ultimate goal.
“Now, we are thinking about tomorrow - we are ready, and we will give our best to grab the
Gold,” Loveth told the Volleyball World after the semifinal match against Russia.
What, or better said ‘Who’, hasn’t changed since the 2019 Championship, was Italy’s head coach - Massimo Bellano. Counting on these two figures, Italy entered the battles to eventually emerge as the impeccable winner.
The 16 participating teams were divided in four pools (A to D), playing the first phase of the competition in round-robin tournaments. The top two teams from each pool were then split into two further pools of four (E and F) where teams locked horns again in round-robin tournaments. The top two teams from Pools E and F qualified for the semifinals and finals.
The Preliminary Round
Le Azzurine started in Pool D of the Preliminary Round where they had Poland, Belarus and Egypt as opponents.
Italy v Egypt 3-0
They didn’t allow any surprises, and on the opening day of play in Kortijk grabbed a 3-0 victory over the African team. Outclassing the opponent on all counts, Italy were satisfied, but still kept on pursuing the perfection.
“Today we were very strong in offence. Our passing was really good, so our setter had lots of options to play. Next to that, the team was really concentrated and that was necessary, because Egypt started really strong, and they were a tough opponent. For tomorrow, we need to bring our serve to a higher level, so we can play a bit more relaxed, but still maintain our normal level of performing,” Gaid Guiducci, setter and captain of Italy had said to Volleyball World right after the match.
>> Lesson 1
Keep on improving!
Gaia, who eventually became MVP and Best setter of the tournament, gives us an important lesson here.
No matter if you start in a perfect way in a long competition, you should stay down to earth and work on what can be improved. Credit for the good performance should be given, of course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reach a better version of what you currently do.
Italy v Poland 3-1
In this match, Italy had some problems facing the strong team of Poland. Even though they took the first set at 25-16, they lost the second one at 10. Which is a pretty big point difference that might upset the players, and they can have it difficult coming back. This was not the case for Bellano’s girls, as they took the third one at 21, and got a sweet revenge in the fourth one, beating the Poles at 9.
“This was a very hard game for us. Poland had a very good defence/block system, especially in the second set. I am happy we showed a lot of determination, even when we were down by some points. It's because of this focus that we were able to do the right actions to win the game,” Giorgia Frosini, opposite of Italy said to Volleyball World after the game.
>> Lesson 2
Even if you are currently losing, keep calm and remain focused!
One of the biggest problems that coaches face in matches is how to lift back their team after losing a set or two. Unfortunately, in some cases, losing a set becomes a greater burden to players, and they can’t show their full potential.
Quite often, it’s a mind game that you play against yourself. A game that requires mental toughness and resilience (check more on the topic in our post here).
Only by exercising this mental toughness and resilience, you will be able to remain focused and do the right actions, as Frosini and her teammates did.
Belarus v Italy 0-3
Italy dominated across all the three sets, recording 43 attacks, 11 blocks and as many as five aces. The Italians never lost control of the game, and inspired after the Poland’s victory, showed high class volleyball.
“We really played as a team today and can be proud of the way we kept fighting together for this win. For the next round we need to grow a bit more, as individuals and as a team, because it will be very high-level matches,” Claudia Consoli, middle blocker of Italy commented talking to Volleyball World.
>> Lesson 3
Fight as a team, improve as an individual!
As we have repeatedly said in this blog, one of volleyball’s biggest charms is the fact that it is a collective sport. You win together with your teammates, you lose together with them as well. But most importantly, you fight together. While improving your personal technical skills and working on your mental approach is a personal task to do, the battle on the team should be perceived as an action delivered by all the players, not only the star ones.
Finishing the first phase of the tournament topping the charts in Pool D, Italy then continued their journey in Pool F, where they faced the teams of Serbia, the Dominican Republic and again Poland (who proceeded ahead as second-best team from Pool D).
Dominican Republic v Italy 0-3
Although they claimed another straight-sets victory, dominating again on all the components, Italy stayed humble, showing respect to the opponent. Italy showed great skills on the serving line, acing nine times and making it difficult for their opponents’ reception. On the other hand, they were impeccable on the block as well (10). The players of Bellano didn’t allow the happiness from the fourth consecutive victory to make them forget that in volleyball, everything is possible.
Gaia Guiducci was again the player in the spotlight after the final referee whistle.
“This is our fourth victory in this tournament, but it wasn't an easy one. In my opinion there are no easy games during a world championship. So we need to give everything. Every match we play, we need to stay strong. Today we had very good serving and our block-defence worked out really well.”
>> Lesson 4
Don’t underestimate any match!
A problem that some teams face during such long competitions, is keeping their focus and remaining aware of the fact that winning requires no underestimation of neither of the teams. No matter how good you did on the previous days, you must stay down to earth. Otherwise, you risk being caught in a situation when you had underestimated the situation and sometimes, it is difficult to change the mindset that quickly. The women’s team of Italy U20 showed us how this should be done the right way - “All matches are important!”
Italy v Poland 3-1
If you think that’s a typo or just a “déjà vu”, it is not. Sometimes in life and in volleyball, you meet the same people/opponent more than just once. And maybe they already know you, so you need to come up with new solutions if you want to prove better.
Italy and Poland met twice at the Worlds, and both times Italy outperformed the Poland team at 3-1. This time around, the Italians did not allow a hurtful set score at 10, as in the first encounter, but still gave a set away. What was crucial for the team’s victory, was the way setter Gaia Guiducci mastered the game, giving new perspectives and opportunities to the spikers. Italy were excellent on the block as well (scoring 17 compared to only three by Poland).
“We never gave up. Today we were very strong in offence and our setter made everybody score. Again, our block-defence paid off really well. Now we look forward to tomorrow's game against Serbia,” Emma Graziani, middle blocker of Italy told Volleyball World.
>> Lesson 5
The pivotal role of the setter
Here we go. In the past months, we had the chance to talk to three former star setters (Nikolay Ivanov, Donald Suxho and Maurizia Cacciatori) and to discover what the power of the “hidden leader” on the court can be in the decisive moments and matches. The smart play on the net allows the outside hitters and the opposites to show their full potential. In the match against Poland, Italy’s Guiducci could “feel” her teammates and set the ball to them in the right moment and in the right place.
Serbia v Italy 0-3
Both Serbia and Italy were undefeated before this match. Although it was clear that with the two victories from the previous days in Pool F, the Serbians and the Italians would proceed to the semifinals, the match was a decisive one for the final standing in the group.
Italy shut out Serbia and topped the charts, being the block and the sharp serve the key to the success. Both the Italians and the Serbians scored as many as 39 times, so the good block (11 compared to eight) and the precision on the serving (six compared to two) sealed the deal for the Italians.
“We played a good match where during all three sets we stayed very calm and concentrated. It was a team win,” Guiducci said.
>> Lesson 6
Don’t rely only on the spiking!
The following is no news, but a reminder always serves good. Besides of staying calm (as Guiducci says), what matters for a win is not only the good work on the attack. You need a well-developed block/defence system in order to be able to stop the other team’s attacks. Make sure to foresee all the potential outcomes, including the sharp attacks of the opponent. And have a plan how to stop them.
After six days of play, Italy “flew” to the semifinals that took place in Topsportcentrum Rotterdam. The format of the competition there changed, meaning that it was all or nothing during the semifinals days - a direct elimination would decide who was to compete for the Gold.
Italy - Russia 3-0
Although it seems like it was a clear and an easy win, this was not the case. The Russian players put a real fight in each one of the three sets, and even outperformed the Italians on attack (48 to 47 winning spikes). However, it was again the better performance on the block and on the serve that helped Italy to claim the victory.
Now is the moment to mention that statistics are important, but don’t always show everything. Even though Russia were storming with some sharp attacks, Italy could finish all the important balls after the 20th point.
“We could finish the important balls and show determination. This was the key to the success- being able to play our game after the 20th point.”
>> Lesson 7
Timing does matter!
Of course, it is important to score. It is important to save. It is important to do the block. But what matters most is the timing. Each point matters, still, the break points somehow matter more.
Great teams are known for being able to play under pressure, and the pressure is higher when you have your opponent breathing down your neck after the 20th points. In such cat-and-mouse games, the team that shows nerves of steel will emerge victorious. Italy could do it, and deservedly fought for the Gold.
Surpassing Russia, in the final, Italy met again the inspired team of Serbia who prevailed over the hosts from the Netherlands after an amazing match.
Gold medal match
Italy v Serbia 3-0
Winning the Gold and leaving no doubts over which was the better team on the court on the final day of play in Rotterdam. This is what Italy did, beating Serbia in three sets in the re-match between both teams.
Statistically, Italy outclassed the opponent on all counts (39 to 37 attacks; 11 to five blocks; six to four aces). The Azzurine also scored more on their opponents’ errors.
The Italians were well in control of the game in the first two sets; the Serbs tried to turn things around, speeding up on attack in the third set. Too late and not possible.
“I don’t have any words to describe the emotion! Becoming champions of the world, is something that we have been dreaming of for such a long time! Throughout the whole competition, we have been able to keep our faith alive. Since we started preparation for this championship, we knew that we can achieve our goal. It is a dream come true!”
Words by Gaia Guiducci.
>> Lesson 8
Keep your faith alive, dreams come true!
Not much can be added to what Guiducci said after being crowned champion of the world. After you have done your homework in the gym, after you have failed several times to achieve the ultimate goal, there is no much left to say than “Keep your faith alive! Dreams do come true!”
Sometimes it takes longer than expected, but the win has an even sweeter taste.
Photo credit & Quotes source: Volleyball World