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The group stage CEV Champions League started this past week. Like many things in the world of professional volleyball, the biggest and deepest volleyball competition in the world has seen many changes due to the COVID-19.
Taylor Sander made his long-awaited debut with his Polish club, Taylor Averill is making a case for why he should be included in the Olympic roster, Ben Patch is on his way to having his best season as a professional, and TJ DeFalco is making history with his Italian club.
Champions League play picked up this past week, and two American players took part in matches from Pool E. Previous installments of this tournament featured multiple rounds of home and away matches in a knock-out format that led to the last two teams admitted to the group stage. A group stage that consisted of four teams with each team playing the other teams in a home and away format followed those opening rounds. These scheduled contests would typically be every other week, start in October, and go through the winter leading to the playoffs in the spring.
This year the first two rounds departed from the knockout format. Six pools of three teams were seeded and composed. The teams played each other in a round-robin format with the winners of each pool advancing to the next round. This limited the amount of international travel each team would have to complete. The six winners of the initial pools were placed into two more pools of three teams that played in another round-robin tournament. The two winners of those pools reached the main group stage.
The group stage this year will still consist of five pools of four teams. Instead of each team playing each other in a home and away double round-robin format, each group will be hosted in one location. Teams will play each other over a three-day span, and then meet up in another location to repeat the same procedure. This will endure every team plays the traditional six matches from previous years, but severely limiting the travel. Even with those precautions put into place, Arkas Spor from Turkey and Jastrzebski Wegiel had to stay home due to positive tests within the club.
Joe Worsley and Avery Aylsworth took the floor for VfB Freidrichshafen last week. The German club opened up their European campaign with a 3-1 victory over ČEZ Karlovarsko of the Czech Republic. Worsley, the back-up setter came in as a serving substitute in the last two sets. The win was followed up with a big defeat over Lokomotiv Novosibirsk on December 2. Worsely was again used as a serving sub in the 3-0 victory over last-year’s champions of Russia. Friedrichshafen ended the week 2-1 after failing to Itas Trentino in straight sets on December 3. Aylswork took off the libero jersey and was used as a defensive substitute in the back row, and Worsley came off the bench to sub again.
The biggest story coming out of the Champions League for American players this week is the return of Sander. Though he has been with PGE Skra Bełchatów all season, he had yet to see the court due to rehabilitation of a shoulder injury that saw him missing all of last season after signing with Dynamo Moscow. Sander has been dressing out for Skra, but had remained on the bench until December 9. The former All-American from BYU and 2014 FIVB World League MVP started at outside hitter against Lindemans Aalst of Belgium in a match from Pool A. Sander was his team’s second leading scorer with 10 points. He scored on eight kills, one block, and one ace. Sander hit .384 in what was his first professional club match since 2019 when he played for Sada Cruzeiro of Brazil.
Taylor Averill continues to prove he was the biggest acquisition in the French Ligue A this past offseason. Last week he was named the league’s MVP at this point in the season by the Confederation of European Volleyball’s Daniel Menley. He earned another match MVP honor on December 5 in a 3-2 win over Chaumont. The middle blocker from Cannes put away 18 kills to accompany four blocks and an ace while hitting .630. He scored nine points on December 9 in a sweep of Ajaccio. His eight kills and an ace came with a perfect 1.000 hitting percentage. Cannes is currently in first place of French Ligue A.
Ben Patch sat out of the German Super Cup with an injury, and did not start in the club’s first Bundesliga match back on October 17. Since stepping onto the court he has made a tremendous impact on his club’s push for a seventh league championship in eight years. The opposite from the Berlin Recycling Volleys has developed an impeccable on-court relationship with Russian setter, Sergey Grankin. Patch is third in Germany in terms of total points scored with 114, but his 5.4 points per set is best in the league. Jordan Ewert, formerly of Stanford, is right above him on the list with 119 total points and 4.0 points per set. Patch’s 4.47 kills per set is tops in the league, and his 0.478 aces per set is second-best.
Patch and Ewert squared off on December 5 when Berlin defeated SVG Lüneburg in three sets. Patch led the match with 19 points. He posted 12 kills and registered a .473 attack average. Patch also chipped in three blocks and four aces. All three of those totals were match-highs in their respective categories. Ewert finished with nine points for Lüneburg on eight kills and a block. The outside hitter who played in Spain last year hit .167 on the night. Berlin is in first place with a 6-2 record and 18 points, and Lüneburg is in seventh place with a 3-5 record and 10 points.
TJ DeFalco’s success with Tonno Callipo Calabria Vibo Valentia has been noted here over the past two weeks, but the outside hitter’s Italian club picked up another big win on December 6 in the form of a 3-0 victory over Leo Shoes Modena. DeFalco scored 12 points on nine kills and three aces while hitting .222. Micah Christenson set Modena to a .141 hitting percentage in the defeat. Vibo Valentia is currently in third place with an 8-4 record and 22 points in the Italian SuperLega standings. The club has never finished higher than seventh in Italy’s top league in its 27-year history, and finished the last three seasons in 12th place.