Defending champion Kerala staved off a late challenge from Haryana to prevail 25-13, 25-12, 25-18 in the women’s round-robin league in the Federation Cup volleyball tournament here on Sunday.

Kerala will now take on national champion Railways for the title in the league decider on Wednesday.

After cruising through the first two sets, riding on the fine performance of its stars S. Rekha, P.P. Reshma and blocker Tiji Raju, the host came up against some unexpected resistance from Haryana in the third. Haryana, which had appeared uncomfortable with setter Komal in its opening match against Railways, brought in a new playmaker Seema against Kerala and looked a much better side. And thriving on its 17-year-old international Nirmal’s impressive attack, the team even gained a 10-7 lead in the third set which was close for a major part. Nirmal impressed from both the front and back courts with her crosscourt spiking and this inspired her side. Nisha and Seema also put up a nicely-timed block for Kerala’s top attacker Rekha.

The scores were level at 11 and 16 and Haryana looked good to take the set but Kerala broke away for a 19-16 lead and with Nirmal hitting out twice, Haryana folded up.

Later, Punjab defeated Rajasthan in straight sets in a match that pitted the senior India captain Gurinder Singh against Lavmeet Katariya who led junior India to the eighth place in the under-21 World Championship in Turkey late last year.

Kerala, which is organising its second successive Federation Cup here, is likely to complete a hat-trick as a host next year.“Both Payyannur (in Kannur District) and Pathanamthitta are keen to host the Federation Cup next year,” revealed Nalakath Basheer, the Kerala Volleyball Association Secretary.

The results (league): Men: Group A: Haryana bt Uttar Pradesh 25-14, 19-25, 25-22, 25-13. Group B: Punjab bt Rajasthan 25-23, 25-20, 25-23.

Women: (round-robin): Kerala bt Haryana 25-13, 25-12, 25-18.

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