For the first time ever Northern Ireland fielded squads in European beach volleyball, taking part in round one of the CEV continental cup, a qualifying event for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After months of training and various selection meetings the pairs of Alan McKnight and Jonathan Workman and David Park and Jeff Scott were chosen to compete as the male pairings while Rhian McCarroll and Alice Harkness and Kerry Kirkpatrick and Melissa Traynor were given the honour of being the woman’s pairs.
All eight players travelled to Portoroz, Slovenia in June 2014 along with coaches Johnny McClenaghan & Irena Mihneva, to compete in a pool with the hosts Slovenia, fellow debutants Scotland, highly fancied Belgium and the reigning champions Norway in what looked to be a highly contested pool.
After a drawing of seeds, Northern Ireland were seeded fourth and consequently kicked off the competition with matches against Scotland at 8.30am local time on the first day of play.
The schedule dictated that the second pairs for Northern Ireland would play first and as such the honour of being the first ever beach players fell to David Park and Jeff Scott in the men’s competition and Kerry Kirkpatrick and Melissa Traynor in the ladies, both of these pairs coming up against strong Scottish teams featuring a mix of Olympians, Great Britain Development squad players and experienced campaigners.
Unfortunately for Northern Ireland this resulted in both pairs losing their respective matches with the scoreline 2-0 in favour of the Scottish, however both NI pairs held their own for long spells, only to be outdone by the experience of the Scots.
The second match in the best of three format saw the top ranked Northern Irish pairs take on the Scottish second seeds, who were again talented pairs.
In the men’s match McKnight and Workman lost the first set marginally without ever really hitting their stride and showing the kind of volleyball that won them last year’s Northern Ireland beach volleyball tour.
The second set, however, was a different story and the Northern Irish pair found their feet in the early morning sunshine, dominating the Scottish team throughout the set leading by six points for most of the way before a slight drop in form at the end of the set tightened the scoreline to 19-17.
This spurred the NI pair on further as they found the grit and determination to dig in and finally win the set 21-19, giving NI their first ever set in international beach volleyball. The third set was enthralling viewing from start to finish with the Scottish coming out firing from the very first serve, however, McKnight and Workman were equal to the challenge and fought hard to keep the scores tight.
Unfortunately though, the Scottish pair were able to find the power needed toward the end of the set to seal the set and the match and the tie overall for the Scottish men.
The ladies match was much more straight forward for the Scottish pair who controlled the game against the new pairing of McCarroll and Harkness, however, the NI pair did show signs that the fledgling partnership could have a strong future with some spells of excellent play throughout the game, although in the end this was not enough as the match and the tie finished 2-0 to Scotland putting them into the semi-final against Norway.
This meant NI would play the Slovenian hosts in their second match.
Again the pairings our teams would come up against were significantly more experienced than the NI teams, with Slovenia able to choose players from a pool of world tour and CEV satellite event winners.
Understandably the power, precision and preparedness of the home teams was enough to control all four matches in the tie, with none of the NI pairs able to really show what they were capable of in the stifling heat of the Slovenian summer sun.
Although all four showed the fight and determination to challenge that showed why they were selected to represent their country in such a prestigious event.
Unfortunately the second defeat meant elimination from the competition due to the chosen format, although this did prove to be an excellent learning curve for the teams as they now know the standard that they need to attain before round two in August or September.
In the end the Belgian men defeated the Norwegians to qualify top from pool B while in the woman’s section the result was reversed with Norway topping the pool with Belgium in second.
The squads and delegates would like to thank the organisers and the hosts for putting on such a fantastic competition and CEV for allowing us the opportunity to take part, and for all their assistance along the way throughout the registration process.
Beach president Johnny McClenaghan said following the trip “It was an amazing experience for all involved, and a real eye opener to the standard we need to reach before round two later this summer. We will kick on from here and training will be much more intense going forward.”