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AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – Incirlik came about as close as it could to scoring a big win for the little guy Saturday.

The Hodjas, with about a sixth of their student population competing in the Mediterranean Volleyball Championships, pushed defending champion American Overseas School of Rome to the limit, before falling 23-25, 25-23, 25-22, 21-25, 15-9.

“It’s just a pure volleyball game, no one is making mistakes, not their team or ours,” Falcons coach Marcus Ciuffreda was heard saying to his team following the third set.

After four tough sets – and seven previous matches in the two-day tournament – the teams seemed to struggle through the final set. Especially the Hodjas, who had also endured the long journey from Turkey earlier in the week.

“Playing five games in one day is just too much,” Ciuffreda said. “We really felt it and there is a major risk of injuries to the kids. We really wish we could spread it out.”

AOSR had just enough left to win it, though.

The Falcons’ Gregory China blocked a couple of spikes from Incirlik players and with Alessandro Elia’s continued barrage of spikes across the net, Incirlik didn’t get an opportunity to battle back as it had earlier.

AOSR’s Omri Erez dinked the ball over the net a couple of times and each counted for a point, including the final point.

“AOSR was very impressive and they earned every penny of it,” Incirlik coach Tracy Smith said. Elia not only helped to carry his team to victory, but he claimed the All-Region, All-tournament and Most Valuable Player titles as well.

Accounting for 20 spikes throughout the match, Elia not only motivated his team, but spiked the final point home in the third set, halting an eight-point comeback by Incirlik.

“He’s a very quiet natural born leader, he’ll calm you down psychologically and will motivate you to perform better when you’re down,” Ciuffreda said about Elia.

Incirlik kept some momentum into the fourth. Jonathan Catchings pounded seven spikes over the net, while teammate Patrick Ostrand accounted for six.

AOSR’s Jackson Boldenow kept the Falcons close with four block points and one spike. But Boldenow ultimately succumbed to Catchings’ final spike, which deflected out of bounds, tying the sets 2-2.

Incirlik, competing for the first time all season outside of limited play in Turkey, finished third last year and was hoping to move two rungs up the ladder.

Senior Tamer Long, who also made the All-tournament list, had long awaited the chance to make it to a championship match according to his coach Tracy Smith, who has known Long since eighth grade.

“He’s the only kid I’ll probably have for four years and he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever had,” Smith said.

At any moment in the match, Long could have been seen hustling during any part of every play. Spikes by Falcons’ players were continually dug up. Balls served more often than not found a way to Long, and were fielded successfully.

His tenacity helped keep Incirlik in the match as the teams split the first two sets, both of which could have gone either way.

Naples defeated Vicenza 25-21, 25-12 to capture third place.

Duhr.jason@stripes.com

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