SPORTS

Despite an undefeated season, Iraklis star urges his team on to more success

Going through a domestic season winning every single game would be regarded by most sportsmen as a perfect season, but for Tom Hoff of Iraklis volleyball team, it was not enough. The Thessaloniki club completed the league and cup double on Sunday after beating Olympiakos 3-0 in the championship playoff to complete a unique 35-game winning streak this season, although Hoff believes that not losing was not necessarily a good thing. «To go undefeated is great, but I’ve come here to develop as a player and I want to be challenged. As a team, we need to be challenged relentlessly throughout the season. It makes us all stronger in the end,» the team’s Chicago-born mid-blocker, told Kathimerini English Edition before flying to the US for the off-season. Hoff admitted that he had never been part of such a dominant side before and, revealing the drive that all champions need, expressed the desire for better competition next season. «I hope that other teams go out and try to acquire some of the best players they can get their hands on. I don’t think it’s good for the league that we go undefeated. We need to be beating each other to produce better teams for Europe,» said Hoff. The only defeats for Iraklis this season have come in the European Champions League. Most painful of all was the loss to French side Tours in the competition’s final, played in front of a home crowd two months ago. «We did not take care of business against Tours. It cost us such a great opportunity to do something so special at home. You get that chance once in your career.» Great teams keep finding new sources of motivation, and after a clean sweep of the domestic trophies, Hoff hopes that healing the European wound might just be the factor to spur Iraklis on next season. «That’s been our most elusive target since I joined the team in 2001. We have to remember that we got to that point of the season and remember that we had the opportunities to make small plays that we talked about all year,» he said, adding «that’s what makes sports great, though sometimes the other team wins.» Although Hoff admits that there were times during this season when Iraklis had off-days and were not punished for it, he is adamant that the 35-0 domestic record was not achieved as easily as it might appear: «We still had a lot of stress because to drop one match was unthinkable by a lot of people.» Guided by their experienced coach Alekos Leonis, Iraklis handled the stress impeccably, having laid the foundations for success behind the scenes. «We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, not just in matches but during practice, to push ourselves. I really enjoy the level of play in practice and for me that’s the No. 1 priority of how you can be a good team,» he said, while also revealing a consistent weakness in the opposition. «A lot of teams in Greece have great players but they don’t produce great teams. They’ll hire one good foreigner to try and help their team, whereas when you play teams in France or Italy, they play great team volleyball. That’s what Greek teams need to do – play more of a complete game and not worry about a guy serving five aces or going off for 40 kills,» said Hoff. A glance at the record books confirms that a league with greater strength in depth is urgently needed. Iraklis, also champions in 2002, and crosstown rivals Aris, in 1997, are the only teams to have been champions outside of the two Athenian giants Panathinaikos and Olympiakos since 1965. For a man who obviously likes a challenge, it is no surprise that before returning to his family home in Colorado Springs, the 32-year-old Hoff renewed his contract with Iraklis. «If we can stay together, we have a great chance to do big things. I love the city I’m playing in. I like the mix of guys that I went into battle with and I like the management of the team. All that adds up for me,» said Hoff. His choice was made even easier by the fact that his US national team colleagues, Lloy Ball and Clay Stanley, also renewed their contracts as the team’s management is trying to keep the side together. Hoff is due to become a father this month, but you can be sure it will not be long before his 2.02-meter frame is back in a gym in Thessaloniki as he and his teammates look to improve on what was almost the perfect season.