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Kakolewska skippers Poland to thrilling win over Italy

Lincoln, United States, May 16, 208 -  Agnieszka Kakolewska produced a true captain’s performance to power Poland’s Volleyball Nations League campaign into life with a fearless all-round display to sink Italy in a nail-biting 3-2 victory (21-25, 25-14, 19-25, 25-17, 15-12).

Kakolewska thundered down the decisive kill to spark huge celebrations as the young Polish side racked up its first win of the tournament and completed an effort that saw the skipper turn in 21 total points, highlighted by tenacious defense. Malwina Smarzek provided priceless support throughout and was the heartbeat of Poland’s attacking output, contributing 23 attacking winners.

Anastasia Guerra was persistent for Italy in a contest that could have gone either way and was locked at 12-12 in the fifth before Kakolewska and Smarzek combined for three straight points. Guerra racked up 15 points on attack and three more with intelligent serving, but her brave endeavors just fell short.

Poland is ranked 22nd in the world and, as one of the VNL’s challenger teams, faces the threat of being relegated at the end of the season. Tuesday’s hard-fought performance in defeat to the United States was hugely encouraging, but it is this result that will add a major boost to head coach Jacek Nawrocki’s hopes of tournament survival.

For Italy, ranked seven but using a young and inexperienced line-up while senior players are being rested at the end of the tiring European campaign, the narrow defeat was a painful blow. There was little to separate the teams but ultimately Poland held its nerve at the moments of greatest pressure and recovered from a difficult start.

Trailing 20-16 in the first set Nawrocki’s team fought back to 21-21 on the back of a spirited serving streak from Martyna Lukasik. However, Italy’s two most dominant players then took over, with Miryam Sylla unleashing two huge spikes and Guerra following another winner with an unreturnable serve to seal the set.

Smarzek, whose physicality and tenacity had given the USA headaches on Tuesday, was largely neutralized in the first, but found her groove after the interval. An uncharacteristically tame miss led to a snarl of frustration and seemed to spark her into life, and Poland rode her improved form into a comprehensive lead.

There was an extended delay with Poland leading 19-11 as Italy coach Davide Mazzanti and captain Ofelia Malinov were increasingly angered by the outcome of a video replay that appeared to show no more than a routine kill by Smarzek, the 191cm opposite spiker.

Poland closed out the set handily, but momentum would soon shift again and when Serena Ortolani’s inspired run of form gave Italy the third frame, the Polish challenge seemed to be withering.

However, just like their clash against the Americans, the Poles were unfazed by adversity. Kakolewska gathered her players around her and demanded a fresh burst of enthusiasm to begin the fourth and Italy’s surge ran out of steam with Guerra and Sylla going temporarily cold.

Poland started the fifth in resounding fashion and swiftly opened up a 7-1 lead that looked to be enough to clinch victory, but this classic contest was not done yet. Marina Lubian stepped up to pull Italy level with a winning block and an accurate spike winner and the clash was in the balance once more.

Ultimately though, the game’s two most impactful players - Kakolewska and Smarzek - came through in the clutch, sealing the final three points and a morale-boosting triumph for one of the tournament’s most exciting young teams.

Poland plays Turkey on Thursday, while Italy concludes action at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Nebraska by challenging the host nation later the same day.


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