This is Blair Lambert’s VolleyballMag.com weekly men’s professional volleyball report, featuring Americans around the world. Got a note about a player or a comment for Blair? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Other than the Russian Cup semifinals and final, there were no matches this past weekend. The PlusLiga played its 17th match day throughout the week and went into the holiday with a new team in first place. There were also some matches in Brazil, Germany, and the Czech Republic that took place before Christmas.
The Italian SuperLega scheduled a full slate of matches on Monday before the Coppa Italia matches starting Wednesday (today). The league in China is already into its postseason, and teams are playing at least three matches each week. With that season ending in January, it gives clubs in Europe the chance to try and sign players such as Thomas Jaeschke and Max Holt for the second half of the year.
Since the calendar year is coming to an end and many leagues are right around the halfway point, it is a good time to recognize a mid-season all-pro team of top Americans. Statistics, results, impact on the team, and level of competition were all taken into account when choosing these seven individuals.
Setter: Micah Christenson, Zenit Kazan, Russia
Christenson lost only two matches all of last season. One happened to be in a one-match semifinal (a format not used anywhere else in professional volleyball). Kazan’s lineup is weaker on paper this season, but Christenson still leads his team to success in one of the toughest leagues in the world. Kazan is 12-2 and in second place and is hitting .407.
The former USC star has identified a hot hand and varied his offense by using four pin-hitters extensively. Maxim Mikhilov, Dmiitry Volkov, Sam Deroo, and Andrey Surmachevsky have all led matches in scoring more than once. Choosing to stay with a Russian club means that Christenson will not have a chance to make a Champions League run, but he is the best American setter so far this year.
Outside Hitter: TJ DeFalco, Asseco Resovia Rzeszów, Poland
DeFalco’s second year at Vibo Valentia proved to be a breakout year in his young career. After more than proving his worth last season at Indykpol AZS Olsztyn, he came to a Resovia club that had been meddling in mediocrity from its title-winning ways less than a decade ago. While it took DeFalco three matches to catch his rhythm in attack, he caught fire and hasn’t looked back. He has scored 256 points at 4.41 points per set and is hitting .422 with 24 aces and 30 blocks.
Resovia is in first place and has had its best start to a season since 2015 and the former Long Beach State great was named first-team all-league in the PlusLiga for the first half of the season.
Outside Hitter: Jordan Ewert, SVG Lüneburg, Germany
The Stanford product has improved every year he has been a professional player. In his third year with SVG Lüneburg, he has become Joe Worsley’s primary weapon and has the fourth-most points in the German Bundesliga with 144 points, 4.4 points per set. He has 113 kills while hitting .321. Ewert is the top server in Germany with 17 aces, .5 aces per set. His club has reached the quarterfinals of the CEV Cup and has the third-best record in the league (though is in fourth place behind a team that has played three more matches).
Middle Blocker: Taylor Averill, Indykpol AZS Olsztyn, Poland
Averill was slotted to play in Poland back in the 2019-2020 season, but an injury halted the former Hawai’i standout’s arrival at Katowice. He went back to play his second season in France after his recovery and was arguably the most valuable player in Ligue A that year. Now in his second year in Poland with Olsztyn, he is putting together a similar season. Averill is scoring 2.78 points per set, hitting .634 with 108 kills. He is in the top five with 43 blocks, .71 per set. Averill has been named the match MVP on three occasions and was second-team all-league in the PlusLiga for the first half.
Middle Blocker: Matt Knigge, CV Guaguas, Spain
This was a difficult choice because Pat Gasman at Chaumont has also had a tremendous season. While Gasman has had a better year from the service line, Knigge’s numbers at the net win out. Knigge has .71 blocks per set and 110 kills, 2.89 per set while hitting .567. The product of Vassar has hit less than .400 in only one match this season. His Guagas team is currently in first place at 12-0 as he tries to win his second Spanish championship in three years.
Opposite: Kyle Ensing, Saint Nazaire, France
This was another difficult decision because Matt Anderson is having a resurgence at opposite, though he only started playing for his Russian club in November. Jake Hanes is the only player consistently producing for his club, at more than points per set, but is not as efficient, and his team has only won one match. Ensing is scoring 4.46 points per set, is hitting .356 and has 186 kills. The Long Beach State product is averaging .27 blocks and .33 aces and Saint Nazaire is in fourth place in Ligue A.
Libero: Erik Shoji, ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Kozle, Poland
While ZAKSA is having a more difficult season than last year when it won the treble (domestic cup, league championship, Champions League), Shoji’s statistics have improved. He finished last year with a 26 percent perfect passer rating. This year it has climbed to 30 percent. The former Stanford star’s 53.05 percent reception value ranking is sixth-best in the league. ZAKSA is currently in fourth place in Poland and is in second place in Champions League Pool D. Shoji was second-team all-league in the PlusLiga for the first half.
Last week’s results
Poland: Jake Hanes scored 26 points for BBTS Bielsko-Biała in a 25-22, 25, 22, 25-27, 22-25, 15-8 defeat to PGE Skra Bełchatów. Hanes had 19 kills, five aces and three blocks.
Asseco Resovia Rzeszów ascended to first place with a 25-18, 27-25, 22-25, 25-11 win over Barkom Kazany Lviv. DeFalco had 14 kills (.444), two blocks and an ace. He also led with 48% positive passes.
Russia: Christenson won his second-consecutive Russian Cup with Zenit Kazan after two victories. Kazan beat Belogorie Belgorod in the semifinals on Christmas Eve 25-23, 25-22, 25-15 and the next day came away with a 25-16, 25-14, 25-21 decision over Fakel Novy Urengoy.
Zenit Kazan is in second place in the Russian Super League behind Anderson and Zenit Saint Petersburg, which is undefeated in league play. Kazan is the only team to beat Saint Petersburg, doing so in the last group stage of the Russian Cup.
Italy: Lube Civitanova defeated Pallavolo Padova on Boxing Day 25-22, 25-14-25, 17 to remain in second. With Ivan Zaytsev healthy and playing well, Gabi Garcia has been used primarily as a serving substitute for Lube. He scored three points on two kills on two attacks and an ace. Alex Nikolov started at outside hitter, finishing with four kills (.077), an ace and a block.
The quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia starts Wednesday (today) with Valsa Group Modena facing Itas Trentino. The other three matches are December 29. Lube plays Allianz Milano, Sir Safety Perugia plays Top Volley Cisterna, and Gas Sales Picenza plays WithU Verona.
Brazil: Austin Wilmot started the fourth and fifth sets for Itambe Minas in a 20-25, 14-25, 25-16, 25-21, 15-10 loss to Volei Renata and had two kills (.333) and a block.
China: The top eight teams in China are now playing in the next stage of the league. Beijing opened with a 25-18, 25-23, 25-18 sweep of Shandong on December 22. Thomas Jaeschke hit .500 in the win with 12 kills and two aces. Max Holt finished with six kills (.714), two blocks and an ace.
Mitch Stahl made his debut with Tianjin on December 22 in a 25-19, 25-15, 25-22 win over Sichuan. Stahl finished with eight kills (.727) without any errors and had a block and an ace.
Beijing remained undefeated with a 25-16, 21-25, 25-19, 25-19 victory over Tianjin. Jaeschke was Beijing’s second-leading scorer with 13 kills (.600) and four aces. Holt produced five kills, three blocks and three aces. Tianjin’s Stahl had four kills, two blocks, and an ace.
Holt got the next night off and Jaeschke only played in the middle for three sets for Beijing in a five-set win against Sichuan. Jaeschke hit .889 on his way to eight kills, one block and an ace.
Tianjin bounced back with a 26-24,25-22,25-27,25-23 win over Shandong. Stahl had eight kills (.545), two blocks and an ace.
Beijing then beat Jiangsu in the quarterfinals. Jaeschke finished with seven kills, two blocks and an ace in a 25-18, 25-17, 25-16 win. Holt added seven kills (.778) and a block.
Stahl had two kills (.000), three blocks, and two aces for Tianjin in a 25-23, 25-20, 25-20 quarterfinal defeat to Shanghai. Shanghai was led by 20 points from Bartosz Bednorz and 16 from Osmany Juantorena.
Germany: While the German Bundesliga was not in action last week, the semifinals of the German Cup took place just before the holidays. The Berlin Recycling Volleys defeated Helios Grizzlys Giesen 21-25, 25-20, 25-21, 25-15. Cody Kessel came off the bench in the first and third sets but did not score. Berlin will face SWD powervolleys Duren in the final.
Czech Republic: Tommy Carmody scored 13 in the middle for Odolena Voda in a 19-25, 12-25, 25-18, 27-25 win over Benátky N. J. last week. He had four blocks to go with eight kills (.700) and an ace.