Editor’s note: Blair Lambert wrote a weekly international men’s notebook for us in the past, tracking American pro players around the world. That all came to a stop last spring. We asked him to get us caught up on who is where and how they’re doing:
The last time we came to you, the volleyball world was about to come to a halt due to COVID-19.
Italy had notably reduced its arena capacity in an attempt to curb the spread. Clubs taking part in the CEV Champions League and the CEV Cup were refusing to travel to Italy due to it being the world epicenter of the virus at that time. A few leagues in the middle of the playoffs tried to carry on before eventually halting play. Many leagues suspended their regular seasons just to have them eventually cancelled, and some leagues ceased operations immediately.
Things are now back in the swing of things in the world of professional volleyball.
While the economic hardships created by the virus has made the landscape of many teams look almost unrecognizable from a year ago, many clubs and leagues are trying their best to put forth competitive championships.
Modena, one of Italy’s most storied clubs, has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic. The club’s financial structure does not pull a great deal of funds from sponsors, but relies on fans to create revenue. With the immense financial deficit, Modena lost American players Matt Anderson and Max Holt. This is in addition to Ivan Zaytsev, and Bartosz Bednorz. While the team was pushing for a spot in the finals last season, Micah Christenson is working hard to carry the team to a finish that will qualify for a CEV competition.
Anderson is not playing anywhere right now but has a contract with Shanghai, but there is still uncertainty about what will happen with the league in China. Holt is at Vero Volley Monza in Italy.
The Brazilian Superliga has faced difficulties sustaining a competitive league as well.
Lucarelli, Wallace, and Eder are some of the biggest names to leave Brazil and head to Europe. The amount of top Brazilian players leaving South America has been unprecedented. Hypo Tirol AlpenVolleys and TV Rottenburg in Germany folded as a result of the financial troubles. We are seeing more American players with experience in higher-tier leagues having to make moves to countries hosting leagues of lesser quality because those are where the opportunities are presenting themselves.
The financial challenges of conducting a successful league have been amplified by the resurgence of the virus spreading throughout Europe.
At this point in the season just about every league and every team has been effected by COVID-19. Countless players, including many Americans, have tested positive. Players not testing positive have had to quarantine after exposure. Matches have been postponed, leagues (such as the French, Israeli, and Cezch) have been halted, and schedules have been reorganized in order to get matches played between those teams not having to quarantine. Teams had to withdraw from the CEV Champions League due to outbreaks, and the group stage has been completely reorganized to limit international travel.
While this has not been a typical season by any means, there still have been a number of positive stories coming from American players overseas, especially when a number of players claimed domestic preseason cups.
Kyle Russell is the first American player to play in Korea since Sean Rooney played for Woori Card Hansae in the 2013-2014 season. Russell led KEPCO to the Korean Cup and was named the tournament MVP. Dave Smith helped ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Koźle defeat PGE Skra Bełchatów by scoring eight points in the finals of the Polish Super Cup. George Huhmann and Knack Roeselare defeated Mitch Stahl and Greenyard Maaseik in the Belgian Super Cup. Cody Kessel’s 11 points were instrumental in the Berlin Recycling Volleys hoisting the German Super Cup after a 3-1 victory over Kyle Dagostino and United Volleys Frankfurt.
There have also been a number of surprises that have come to the forefront this season. Brandon Rattray was plagued by injuries while at UCLA, and did not finish his senior year with the program. While he left NCAA volleyball unceremoniously, he has made a name for himself as a professional. His first match was back on October 24 against Ibiza Ushuaïa Volley, a match in which he led his team to a 3-3 victory with 29 points. His point production came from 28 kills and an ace with a .296 hitting percentage.
Rattray followed it up on October 27 with 30 points in another five-set win, this time over UBE L’Illa Grau. He finished the match with 28 kills, a block, and an ace while hitting .365. Rattray scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth set of a 3-1 win over Barcelona on October 31. Rattray led the way with 27 kills and a block that ended the match. He hit .320 for the night.
The club suffered its first defeat since his arrival on November 7 against Urbia Uenergia Voley Palma. He again led the match with 17 kills and an ace while posting a .222 attack efficiency. He scored 33 points in a 3-2 win over then undefeated CV Teurel on November 14 and was awarded the league’s MVP award for that week. Since that statement win, Rattray has registered 16 and 22 points in a pair of wins that has put his club in seventh position out of fourteen teams with a 6-4 record. It is worth noting that Arenal Emeve is 6-1 since his arrival.
Another surprise this season has been provided by TJ DeFalco and Tonno Calippo Calabria Vibo Valentia. DeFalco is back in his second season with the club after finishing near the bottom of the standings last season. While it lost to Monza and Milan in the Coppa Italia, missing out on the quarterfinals, DeFalco’s team is 7-3 so far in the SuperLega. This is a team that only won five matches all of last season. DeFalco scored 15 in a 3-2 win against Ravenna on October 18. He scored 15 kills and hit .315 in a match that saw his team overcome a 13-9 deficit in the fifth set.
DeFalco had a less productive night on October 25 against Piacenza. While he did not commit an attack error in nine attempts, putting away four kills, problems in reception led to him being replaced in the second set. DeFalco also added a block to his point total. DeFalco played the entire match and scored 14 points in a four-set victory over Monza on November 1. He led his team with four aces to accompany nine kills and a block.
Not only has Vibo Valentia topped its win total from last season, but DeFalco’s team also handed Lube Civitanova its only loss thus far in the SuperLega. He scored 17 points in a 3-1 upset of Lube on November 15. DeFalco hit .414 in a 15-kill performance. He also chipped in two aces. He led the match on November 25 with four aces in a 15-point performance resulting in a 3-1 win over five-time FIVB Club World Championship winners Itas Trentino. Vibo Valentia is in third place at the moment and in position to have home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Taylor Averill was set to play in the Polish PlusLiga last season, but had to stay in the United States to rehabilitate a knee injury. He signed with AS Cannes in the French Ligue A, a team struggling at the bottom of the standings last season. Averill has been very instrumental in the team’s turnaround this season, scoring 19 points in the middle in the club’s latest match against Poitiers on November 20. He has produced double-digit points in all but two of his team’s eight matches. Averill is rated as the best attacking middle blocker in France, and has the fifth best blocker rating.
Cannes is currently 6-2 and in second place in the standings. In addition to domestic success, Cannes has advanced to the round of 16 in the CEV Challenge Cup. Averill finished with seven kills, four blocks, and an ace in it’s opening-round victory over Nantes Reze.