Sensational Sloetjes leads Netherlands to finals

 

Stuttgart, Germany, June 13, 2018 - A brilliant performance from Lonneke Sloetjes overwhelmed China on Wednesday and secured the Netherlands a berth in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League finals. 

Sloetjes, her team's leading-scorer in the VNL, had 27 points to guide the Netherlands to a 3-1 (26-24, 17-25, 25-17, 25-21) victory and she was well supported by wing spiker Anne Buijs (14 points), while middle blocker Yvon Belien was resolute throughout.  

After a heart-stopping crucial victory over Turkey on Tuesday, the Netherlands overcame a second set stutter to calmly register their 11th victory of a strong VNL campaign. 

Yingying Li top-scored for China with 19 points, while opposite spiker Xiangyu Gong (16 points) tried hard. China, who have automatically qualified for the finals as hosts, dominated at the net - as testament to a decisive 14-7 advantage in points from the block position - but had no answer for the irresistible Sloetjes who was the difference between the teams.

It was just the Netherlands' eighth victory from 28 attempts against China at the world major level and their first in less than five sets.
  
Scoring machine Sloetjes was on the board immediately and followed up another powerful spike moments later to ominously stamp her authority early in the contest. However, apart from Sloetjes, the Netherlands started slowly and were error-strewn as an energetic China peeled off five consecutive points highlighted by the high-flying Gong. 

Shrugging off their rust, the Dutch engineered a fightback and rediscovered their high-octane game to level the scores but the standard of play failed to reach great heights as both teams were seemingly going through the motions. 

China were looking the more solid team with their quick sets ensuring they dictated through short rallies but, once again, the Netherlands came roaring back through the sensational blocking of Belien as the Europeans led 16-15 at the second technical timeout. 

The match spectacularly sparked after the timeout and, in a rare lengthy rally, China's resilience was showcased through spectacular blocking punctuated by an imposing spike from Li as the set see-sawed delicately. As expected, the standard rose during the crucial passage in the backend of the set as Sloetjes lifted with a pair of strikes and the Netherlands gamely saved a set point before closing out a tense 30-minute first set.      

China's height at the net, led by towering captain Xinyue Yuan, was causing havoc but the Netherlands were playing smart and positioning themselves well for the counterattacks as the teams traded points in a mirror image of the first set. Gong was mixing power with finesse to edge China to an early 8-5 advantage at the first technical timeout and the Olympic champions ran away with it through perfectly executed sets. 

In a hole after another slow start, the Netherlands hustled and dived around the court - echoing the message from coach Jamie Morrison who told his frazzled team "to go for everything'. Despite Morrison's plea, China's overwhelming dominance continued through a fusion of skill and brute force as evidenced by Yi Gao who unleashed on several powerful blows to help level the match.

China's net play continued to strangle the Netherlands but a pinpoint strike by Buijs down the line finally found a way through the impregnable wall. The imposing Chinese frontline rattled the brilliant Sloetjes but the Dutch showcased a dose of grit to win a pulsating rally - capped off by Linyu Diao sprawled on the sidelines in desperation - to go ahead 6-5. 

Stellar serving from Maret Balkestein-Grothues fuelled a momentum swing as the Netherlands rattled off five successive points to gain a stranglehold over the set and match. The Dutch impressively resisted China's best efforts of a comeback indicative of a timely block from Celeste Plak to give the Netherlands a commanding 16-11 lead at the second technical timeout. 

China got within three points on several occasions but the Netherlands had all the answers with Juliet Lohuis providing a spark off the bench as her team wrapped up the third stanza to sniff a place in the finals.

An astounding dive from libero Myrthe Schoot to engineer a point for her team highlighted the early part of the fourth set as the Netherlands aimed to end China's resistance. Clutch play from Sloetjes gave her team some much-needed breathing space and they eventually celebrated their place in the finals with a towering spike from Buijs.
    
China meet Turkey on Thursday to complete the pool phase, while the Netherlands play hosts Germany.