Not many graduates can come out from university with a degree and say they also won their BUCS league three times, a trophy cup final, Director of Sport award and Team Achievement of the year, but I, I’m proud to say, can.
The titles and the awards are what people from the outside looking in see. Like football fans see their team’s match day scores, the fans, the students and the university see the results and at the ‘final whistle’. However, the friends, families and coaching staff of athletes see the real grind behind the success story.
Being a scholar at UEL is tough. As well as your specific sport training ranging from 12-16 court-specific hours per week, you must also attend your weekly strength and conditioning session. While going only once a week is compulsory many scholars go twice to three times a week through self-motivation to improve on the court. International basketball scholar and master’s student, Matt Ponce, gave his insight on being a UEL student-athlete and his part in a BUCS Premier title defence.
“Being a scholar athlete you have to prioritise your time. Making time to work out, go to the gym and study for your course too. I’m very excited to have won the league, that was one of our goals from this year, but now we have to refocus to Final 8s this weekend.”
The focus sports – basketball, volleyball, football and tennis – have all made it into the top BUCS division , with three teams winning their Premier Titles this year, including the title defence for women’s volleyball and men’s basketball.
I have been a student at UEL for three years, and when I started, the volleyball programme was just setting up. We had a full-time coach, and all our support services, but court time was limited. We managed to win the 1A Southern League comfortably without dropping a set, and won the BUCS Trophy. We were the first UEL Team to reach a final, let alone win one.
Even with a successful year, we had a change in coaching staff. Simon Loftus came straight from NCAA Volleyball in America to take over both the men’s and women’s volleyball programmes. Training sessions increased from once a week to five times a week, as well as matches and keeping up gym sessions, the increase was more than noticeable and piled on the pressure to perform.
Having been newly promoted to the league, we didn’t have any expectations to win. We were the underdogs, but as the season went on we continued winning, and, again without dropping a single set, we won the league. At Final 8s we fell short against Durham and Northumbria, both established volleyball programmes, and finished the year as the third best team in the country: not bad for our first season in the top flight.
‘We did it’
Loftus spent the summer recruiting new talent to pad out our small squad. We had 14 players by September and pre-season started early. The newly promoted Essex University, another volleyball programme university, inflicted my first set loss and league defeat in two years.
At the Christmas break Loftus told the team he was leaving the programme to lectue at Kington University. The next match, we faced top-of-the-league Oxford, who had taken Essex down in straight sets. We had our best team performance: we stuck together and showed we could pull through even if we didn’t have the same coach at the reins.
Loftus’s successors Jefferson Williams and Ian Legrand, cranked up the pressure and prepared us to take on Essex in a title-decider. We won in a five-set match, 15-13 in the final set. We did it, we defended our title.
I am the only student left in the squad from the original team. I had watched the programme leap from one training session a week to five, to defending a BUCS Premier Title, to competing against the best teams in the country at Final 8s. This year we travel to Bournemouth again, and our aim is to be the first UEL Team to reach a Championship final. It will be my final time to wear a UEL jersey in BUCS competition. All three years will be over.
Throughout my time at UEL I have missed matches through injury, missed matches through coursework and missed training for a social life. Balance is the biggest key when it comes to university, it’s like spinning plates, you must be in control of each aspect individually to avoid collapse. As the season goes on you realise there is more of an overlap in each aspect than you think. My social life is spent with my team-mates, and my gym time becomes part of my social life. My Sports Journalism course links into my sport. It all links.
Team sport is one of the most unique environments. Everyone has a mutual respect that you are all going through the same thing, you work together to reach team goals, you support each other to meet individual goals. You see your teammates more than your family, more than your other friends. It’s like creating a little family, a very dysfunctional family, but nonthe less, they become irreplaceable.
While I have spent the last three years with almost whole new teams each season, I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. Each season I have been supported through my injury and they have helped me to get back on court. While this season is coming to an end, a new challenge is already on its way, my team is helping me to prepare for surgery. I wouldn’t be graduating university with three titles to my name without my team, my family – as dysfunctional as it might be!