Inter-Uni 2018 | Forged by Fire, How Agni Almost Brought Volleyball Home

It didn’t make sense. At one moment, they were only one point away from becoming the champions, but as that point never came, the next moment they were seeing collecting the runners-up medals. Having led their opponents to 2 sets to 0 and having scored 24-20 in the third set, with the victory seemingly inevitable, ending up on the losing team didn’t make sense to any of them at all. But then again, them being there, in the final, didn’t make much sense in the first place. South Eastern University—or Agni, as they are better known—playing the final of men’s Inter University Volleyball Championship! Not so long ago did it seem nothing but impossible. Yet, on their way to the final, they trounced opponents that had more resources, more support, and looked more entitled to be in a final. And they were only one point away from the victory.


“Of course I’m proud of what we achieved, but there is that ‘but’, because we came as close as ever to winning it and we couldn’t,” Ishan Vimarshana awakened his voice about the journey he had as the coach of Agni volleyball team. “I’ll admit it; I’m not a coach. I’ve played volleyball for my school, Naththandiya Dhammissara College. I knew how to play, but teaching how to play was a new challenge. It is special that we came this far. At the end of the day, because of what we achieved and how we achieved it, I’ll take this as a victory despite the defeat in the final.”


“The university didn’t even have a volleyball team when I first entered the university,” says Mithun Madhumal, a third year undergraduate of SEA and a senior player of the team, “But that year, in 2016, we managed to gather some players to play in SLUG and that was the birth of this team. We never had a coach until the current coach was appointed two months ago; the players practiced by themselves.” Therefore, they coached themselves and sometimes, acted as coaches too. “Yes, last year, for IUC 2017, one of our senior players stood on the sidelines as our coach because, without a coach, we wouldn’t have been eligible to compete.” That bit of acting was needed no longer since, two months ago, as they finally found a coach. “Last May, I asked Ishan Vimarshana, with whom I’ve played volleyball at school, to come here to coach this team. He accepted my offer, and the university administration agreed to appoint him as a visiting coach”, that was two months ago,…and here we are now.”


It wasn’t that simple, though. They didn’t magically end up here after recruiting the new coach. If anything, it sent more challenges their way. As an indoor volleyball court wasn’t their luxury like it was for many other universities, they opted to play on an outdoor court, not out of choice but out of lack of options. As their practice sessions often clashed with late hours of the day, providing a lighting supply to the court was the next challenge they had to overcome. After several failed attempts to sway the university administration’s attention in that direction over two years, they decided to spend out of their own pockets and buy six flashlights for the court.


Now that they had a court with lights, they started practicing under the guidance of the new coach. Not that their woes ended there, they just chose to adapt to whatever that comes their way. The same way they adapted to the coloured balls, which weren’t their luxury on the training ground, during the tournament after practicing with the white balls all along.


The coach was new to the team, and coaching was new to him too. “It took me about a week to get used to my new role as a team coach. At first, I didn’t try to teach them complex moves or techniques; we started with simple things. To be honest, to compete in the university level you don’t need the whole team to be exceptional volleyball players. Just two or three good players and others who can play with them as a team would do. That’s what I tried to focus on. For about a month, I focused on improving their individual skills, such as blocking skills, service, defensive skills, hitting skills and so on. Only after that did they start practicing as a team. There wasn’t a libero in the team when I took over.” The coach says that they conjured a libero for the team in these two months out of a player his instincts deemed fitting.


 As the Inter University Championship drew closer, the team was playing better than ever. “We played a few friendly games with other universities prior to the tournament to get used to playing on an indoor court. And it gave the team confidence to believe that they can make it to the semifinals at the least.”


The evening before the volleyball championship started, they set off to Wayamba University, all 12 of them, packed in a van they were provided with. Next day, at around 3 am in the morning, they reached their destination. The usual four-hour journey extended to a nine-hour journey as they first traveled to collect the new balls the university sponsored for, secondly to Gampaha to collect the ordered team t-shirts, which were bought at their own expense and finally, re-routed to their original destination. That morning, at about 8 am, they played their first match, and once they had started, they didn’t stop until the final.


They emerged as the champions of their group in the first round, thrashed RAJ 2-0 in the quarter-final, fought their way back to a 3-2 victory after trailing 2-1 against SAB in the semifinal and for the first time in the history of their university, now they were in the final with UOC as their opponent. In a post-tournament Facebook post, their coach has scribbled, “Now we had already won. Reaching the final, itself, felt like a victory to us.” Perhaps, what followed changed their perception on that victory a little because they came as close as ever to a better victory, but they had already won; that cannot be denied.


The coach recalls, “We considered UOC to be a beatable opponent. That’s not to say we were overconfident or we underestimated our opponent, but we thought we can scrape out a victory in the final somehow.” They almost did. They won the first set, then the second. UOC were always breathing down their neck, scores of each team closely following the other’s. And as the third set progressed, one of the team’s most important players, Niroshan, developed a muscle discomfort but decided to play through the pain. Still, they fought until the scores reached 24-20 in Agni’s favor. “We tried hard to get that one point and end the game,” says Mithun, “but things just didn’t go our way.” UOC tied the score as Agni’s luck did no favor to get that one point. And then UOC won the third set. The fourth and the fifth went their way too, and UOC became the champions.


Why they failed to win the fourth or fifth set, no one really knows, but the coach thinks, “When you have been that close to victory and fail to grab it the way we failed, there’s no outcome other than going on to lose the match.” That might be the reason, but this, as Mithun adds, was another, “We were tired. These same players had been playing for two days. And the last game we played, the semi-final, lasted five sets, and we only had two hours to recover after that.” Whatever was the reason, in the end, Agni, the team that started their journey against all the odds and prevailed, walked out of the tournament as the runners-up.


Sure, they deserve a fairytale ending to the journey they had from being nobody to heavyweights of university volleyball. However, being runners-up takes no value away from everything they achieved together because, they achieved more than most of the others from less. And there is always a next year. This might only be the beginning of the Agni volleyball team. So, we, MoraSpirit, wish Agni the best of luck in their future endeavors.


Article by Anjalee Sudasinghe

Edited by Piyumi Yashodha

Sponsored by Millennium IT

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