Coaching Log – September 26, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Monday

Before practice we had a team talk about both on-court and bench mentality during matches – in particular late in close sets. Just looking to get everyone on the same page in terms of expectations, consistency, etc.

Practice was focused on hitting and blocking. In the former case, it was about the pins making sure they were hitting high, especially out of system. In the latter case it was mainly about timing, as we have consistently been late on our blocks. This is something I showed the players via still frames from recent match video.

After some serving and passing, the first part of the work done was pin hitters against defense. This was done off a serve reception, with the hitters having marked out corner targets to aim at. The second part was a wash drill where one side received a served ball, then had a ball played to the setter to create a setter-out situation. In both cases the first ball had to go to the pin hitter. After that, anyone could be set.

Tuesday

This was the first match against our travel partner, Cameron. This time around we played at their place. We saw Cameron playing at our home tournament. They’re a small team, but a scrappy one. They play good defense and will go fast in attack given the opportunity. Over the weekend they lost in 5 to West Texas (already their 5th five-setter of the season), then got swept by UTPB. The latter was a little bit of a surprise.

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We had some struggles at the start of the first set, in particular by way of hitting errors. They jumped out to a 0-4 lead and stayed in front until very late. In fact, they were up 24-20. We fought back, though, and ended up winning 29-27. Our pin hitters scuffled, but our MBs tore it up. One of them went for 8 kills on 10 swings, with three of those kills part of our late comeback.

After that we were basically in control. We hit .324 and .325 in the second and third sets ( .154 in the first). For the match we had 20 more kills than Cameron. At times our offense was a thing of beauty, with players scoring from all across the net. That was against a relatively poor blocking team, however. We’re not a real tall team, but Cameron is notably smaller.

Wednesday

This was a rough practice. The tempo was a little low. That’s not a big surprise given we played the night before. We did some back row attacking and defense work, and serving and passing as part of the early stages. After that we spent time having the pin hitters work on effective tips and roll shots.

When we got into 6 v 6 at the end, though, we had two collisions involving heads. One was head-to-head when two players dove for a ball in the middle of the court. The other was head-to-knee. Crazily, the “head” player in the latter was also involved in the former. She joked the second was on the opposite side of the first, so they balanced out. The knee ended up a bit swollen and sore, but all the heads seem to be fine.

After the second coming together, we called a halt and one of the players joked we needed to wrap everyone up in bubble wrap. On the plus side, the starter we had down with a knee issue was back to basically full participation. Also, our ankle injury player from the first tournament is all the way back in to training. We may eventually get back to full strength!

Thursday

No practice today as we had to get on the road for our lengthy weekend road trip. We jumped on the bus for a 2:00 departure. Six hours later we were at our hotel in Clovis, NM.

Friday

Doing one-night hotel stays when you have an evening match is always a logistical challenge. You have to work around check-out times that are usually hours before you want to head to the gym. In this case, it was noon check-out when the plan was to leave for the match at 4:00pm. Video review, lunch, and study hall in the breakfast area of the hotel filled the time.

This night’s competition was Eastern New Mexico. They were picked to finish 9th in the preseason poll. It was a tough match.They have an OPP who we particularly made note of, though they also had a solid MB and OH. We knew keeping them out-of-system was going to be important.

Western NM

We lost the first 25-21, then won 25-20 in the second, though that was more about ENM making a lot of errors. During the long break we decided to swap libero’s (you can change them set-to-set in college volleyball) to bring in a player who’s been getting time as a serving and defensive sub. Our starting libero just wasn’t playing confidently and wasn’t passing well.

We really struggled in the third set, losing 25-14. We hit negative and allowed them to hit .435. In the latter stages we made a couple of changes. One was to swap setters. Our starter was struggling with accuracy and wasn’t making the best decisions. We swapped out one of the OHs who wasn’t hitting well to bring back in the one who was out due to injury. We also turned the rotation, both for offense and defense (blocking).

That helped turn things around. We hit .286 in the fourth and held them to .098 on the way to a 25-20 win. They were better on offense, but we held strong and ran out 15-12 winners. Not a pretty match, but a good fight.

Saturday

We played Western New Mexico at their place. They were picked 6th in the preseason poll. Like UTPB, they are a new edition to the Lone Star Conference this year. They are also the longest trip for us. In particular, it’s a lengthy trip from Eastern NM as you have to drive from northeast (Portales) to southwest (Silver City), making for a tough back-to-back. We drove part of the way after Friday’s match, which meant getting to the hotel around 1:00AM. We drove the last two hours the next day ahead of a 3:00PM match.

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The players didn’t outwardly show signs of feeling the effects of the tough match the night before, the short night’s sleep, and all the travel. They were very loose and lively to start the match. You know there had to be some, though.

WNM is probably the biggest team we’ve played thus far, so we knew there would be some challenges for our attack. We basically kept the squad who finished the match the night before, except for putting back in the starting setter. Unfortunately, we both struggled on offense (.069) and in defense (they hit .407). We lost 25-21.

We made an OH change for the second set as the freshman who played well the night before struggled. Our hitting percentage did improve (.250), but we just couldn’t stop them from scoring (.556).

To boost the defense, we changed setters. Our second setter (a freshman) is stronger in both blocking and defense. That seemed to help. The start was rough, as we went down 10-4, but we managed to claw our way back in gradually. We kept them to only .138, and actually got our only two blocks of the match – one by the new setter. Unfortunately, we made three straight service errors late in the set which may have kept us from at least pushing them to the limit. We ended up losing 25-21 again.

Notes

We drove straight back from the match. It took around 12 hours all together, including picking up dinner and doing a mandatory driver change. I got home just after 7:00AM on Sunday morning. Fortunately, that’s now out of the way.

Post-match team talks

head scratch

Recently, I witnessed a team having a lengthy post-match talk. It came after they lost a match to my current team, Midwestern State. Interestingly, it looked like the assistant coach was the one doing most of the talking, while the head coach stood by fairly quietly.

This wasn’t a ranting, raving type of coach talk, though there was definitely a negative tone. I only heard bits and pieces. They made it sound like the focus was on mindset – at least during that part of the talk. The real standout about the meeting to me was its length. That, and the fact that it took place in the corner of the gym rather than in a locker room.

I’ve seen some ugly, long-winded post-match team talks in my time. Some involved teams I coached. Others involved teams I coached against. In the former, very rarely did I think that sort of meeting was productive (see Does yelling at the team accomplish anything positive?)

In the case of witnessing a team getting scolded, my reaction comes in two forms. On the one hand, sometimes I feel bad for them. When I coached at Exeter, our men’s team beat a team from Northern Ireland in a playoff match. That coach, who seemed like a nice guy, laid into them for a ridiculously long time afterwards. I felt really bad for them.

The alternative reaction is more a competitive one. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to beating a team so badly that they get yelled at afterwards. It’s kind of like targeting a single opposing player to the point they eventually have to be subbed out. It’s a psychological victory above and beyond the one on the scoreboard.

Can’t help but wonder if coaches who yell at their team in public realize this? Or if they’re just trying to embarrass their players.

Coaching Log – September 19, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Monday

Before practice we talked with the players about improving how we play on the second day. Now that we’re heading into conference play, it’s not something we can afford. We asked the players for their impressions why we came out flat in our first match on Saturday.

This was mainly a fairly slow-paced session. Aside from the warm-ups and a bit of serving, it was entirely a 6 v 6 practice. The biggest part of that was an offense vs. defense game where the ball stopped after the initial attack. The focus was mainly on serve reception technique, which is something we want to see improved. The replay camera was set so the receivers could look at themselves each time they passed. After that we played an out-of-system game.

Tuesday

In evaluating four of our recent matches I realized that our kill % on perfect passes in serve receive was surprisingly low. It was only 35%, which is a lot lower than most guessed when I asked. Part of that comes from the fact that we’re still developing parts of our attack. Another part comes from the fact that we don’t do a lot of work in practice on perfect pass situations. Many of our games are transition and out-of-system oriented. And even when we’re initiating with served balls, we’re encouraging our players to serve aggressively. As a result, we don’t have great passing in training.

That being the case, we decided to go through the reception rotations one by one. In each rotation the team had to get five first-ball kills out of ten. Any rotations which failed were repeated at the end. It was slow, and low intensity, but something we needed to do to help identify the best options and decisions.

Wednesday

We continued to work on perfect pass offense and problem rotations, but at a much higher intensity level. As a warm-up, we did a down ball version of the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. The players did a serving warm-up after that, followed by a serving and passing game.

After that it was 6 v 6 play. First up was a variation on the Bingo-Bango-Bongo game. In this version a team received a free ball. If they won it, they received a down ball from the opposing Zone 4. If they won that, they received a final ball through Zone 2. Winning all three balls earned the team a point. If at any point the team lost a rally, the other team received a free ball to restart the sequence. Thus, it was basically a near-continuous play game. In all cases, the balls were initiated by the opposing team. By that I mean if a free ball was required to go to Team A, we tossed a ball to Team B to send it over. If no one won a point for too long, we rotated players around. Otherwise, we made the switches at each point win.

We then played 22 v 22, and focused on Rotation 1 and Rotation 6. Those are the problem ones up to this point. A team automatically won the big point on a first ball kill, either off serve receive or in transition.

Class schedules cause us to lose players late in this practice. That being the case, we finished playing Winners 5. It featured fixed setters and three teams of four. Each team had a middle, who attacked front row. The other three were back row only players.

Thursday

The main part of practice was 6 v 6 playing first a wash game, then a standard game with bonus points. In the case of the former, the game featured alternating serves. To win a big point, a team had to win two rallies in a row. We played 3-point games and went through four different rotations. In the last game the bonus points were for off-speed shot kills when in-system. It’s something we don’t do enough of, so we want to start encouraging it more.

After practice (and showers for the players), we had a sports psychologist come in to talk with the team. He went over some personality-based communication stuff, cycling back to his work with the squad in Spring. The majority of the time, though, was focused on mindset elements.

Friday

This was our first Lone Star Conference match. We hosted the University of Texas, Permian Basin (UTPB). UTPB is a new member of the conference this year. The coaches and sports info folks picked them to finish last in the league this year in the preseason poll. We were picked to finish second to last, so this was a match-up of the two teams least expected to reach the conference tournament.

MSU Ligon

We won 3-0. The first set was pretty straight forward. We let them creep back up late, but won 25-19. Our offense wasn’t great (.161), but there’s was worse and we had four aces. The second set was more challenging. They got on top early, with a 5-1 lead. We clawed back fairly quickly, but it nip-and-tuck from that point on, and we didn’t really get on top of them until the very end for a 25-23 win. Our hitting wasn’t any better, and their offense improved some.

The final set started off like Set 2 with them putting pressure on us – particularly in reception with a few tough serves. They were ahead 9-13 at one stage. After that, though, we ran away with it to win 25-16. We hit .304 on the set, despite getting blocked number of times, while they hit .000.

It was the best match of the year so far for our MBs. Both hit over .400. As a team our kill rate was 47%, which is solid. Just made a few too many errors, though, so only ended up at .198 for the match.

Nice to get the first conference win under our belt after the team went 0-16 last year.

Saturday

In our second match of the week we hosted West Texas A&M. They ended up 4th in the preseason poll, after a 7th place finish in 2015. This is a team that dominated the LSC for several years before running into injury issues last season.

This was a winnable match, but we were lacking on the mental side of things. One of our issues with previous Saturday matches was not coming out with good focus. That showed up in poor serve receive passing. In this case, though, that wasn’t the issue. We passed a 2.11 for the match, which was one of our best on the year so far. We had them under pressure as well, as they only passed a 1.75. The mental issues this time were on other areas. Several balls didn’t get played on defense because players weren’t expecting the ball. Balls to be set fell between players. We made some poor decisions.

As the opposing coach said after the match, both teams had pucker spells. We ended up going down in four: 25-21, 26-24, 26-28, 25-18. The result might have been different had we managed to hold on to a 20-16 lead in the second set.

Funny match. Neither team could stop the other very well out of serve receive the first set. Then in the second, neither team could sideout very well.

A nice bright point in the match was the play of our freshman OH. She’s been mainly used as a back row sub so far, but had to start this weekend because our red shirt junior is sidelined with an injury. She was probably our best hitter on the match overall.

Observations

One of the positives of the seasons so far has been the recognition by just about everyone internally how far the team has come. We got some external affirmation of that this weekend. One of the opposing coaches said to us after the match, “You guys are going to be f—ing good!” It’s a funny thing to get that kind of external comment. Internally, our tendency is to see developmental needs.

Playing multiple matches a day question

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I had an interesting conversation with the assistant men’s soccer coach. He and the guys on that team watched the first of our matches on Saturday before they left for their own. Naturally, that was our weakest performance of the tournament. :-/

He made the observation, though, that the team is different this year. In particular, he talked about how the team bounced back from losing a set. It’s something teams in prior years have not done well. The players have made that sort of resilience a part of their team focus for the year. They want to be the team that looks the same, no matter the score.

Recovering between matches

The question the soccer coach asked me had to do with how players handle playing multiple matches in a day. As he noted, soccer players in the US don’t play more than one match a day after about the age of 12. He was curious what was the biggest challenge for players when playing two matches. Is it the physical? Is it the mental?

I’m curious to hear what you think. Leave a comment below.

For my own part, I think it’s probably more mental than physical. Yes, there is definitely a physical element, especially for players who jump a lot. There’s a ton of mental energy exerted in especially a competitive match. Even as a coach I find myself wanting a nap after an intense match!

To be fair, though, volleyball players are used to multiple matches per day. That’s the deal for Juniors volleyball, after all. College players usually come from clubs that play in 2-3 day tournaments, and pool play rounds feature generally three matches a day. Obviously, those matches aren’t at the same level as a college match, and they are usually only best-of-3 rather than best-of-5. But the players are used to having to “get up” for a match multiple times a day.

Coaching Log – September 12, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Monday

This was a shortish, fairly technical practice. We talked about stats from the weekend, in particular the comparison of hitting effectiveness of different types of sets (see last week’s post). We also gave them some time to write in the journals their thoughts on our generally poor first sets. The plan was to actually talk about it on Tuesday.

We said this week’s focus is making improvements. The blockers worked on getting better net penetration while the liberos and smaller setters worked on defense. After that we mixed players up in a couple of serve & pass and middle transition stations. The setter-middle connection was a big focus for the week.

Next up was the Continuous Cross-Court Digging drill, which we put in for the first time. We had the players hit, which I also did at Svedala. It would have been better to see some stronger swings, but it was the first time running it, so it was fine. The point was to work on control digs better, especially on balls not hit directly at the player. Player hitting creates a higher degree of randomness.

We finished up with 6 v 6 play, with bonus points for an ace or 1-pass for the serving team, and 3-passes for the receiving team.

Tuesday

First up was a session watching video from the weekend. It was an opportunity to focus on a few things, and for the players to confirm that we just need to be better in certain areas. By that I mean no major overhauls are required to get where we want to go. After that we talked about the slow start issue. The general conclusion seemed to be that the 4 minute and 5 minute pre-game segments aren’t getting the job done. Players aren’t feeling physically ready, and if anything are mentally frazzled. Adjustments will be made.

The biggest single focus of practice was the connection with the middles. We played a couple of games where scoring was driven by effective middle attacks (e.g. bonus points for MB kills). More technically, we did some work on digging balls outside the body line, which is something we identified as an issue over the weekend.

One of the more interesting things we did was a dig-or-die back row game.

Wednesday

The focus on the setter-middle connection remained a theme for this practice. After doing some serving to begin, we once more split the team into stations, with one working on serve & pass and the other working on middle attacks. After that, we repeated the dig-or-die back row game as a prelude to playing 6 v 6.

Our starting OPP has to leave early on Wednesdays, so the first game we played awarded bonus points for right side and in-system back row kills. After that, we repeated Tuesday’s bonus game with respect to middle hitter attacks. In particular, because we wanted to develop the slide, we gave two points for a kill on that set.

Overall, we were quite happy with the middle offense. Our freshman setter took a while to lock in on going for the bonus points, but she eventually got there.

Thursday

We started practice off with some 2-touch games as a warm-up. After that, we progressed to our new pre-match warm-up routine for the 4 minute and 5-minute parts. They still needed to get smoothed out a bit, which we hope would happen during the tournament.

The rest of the session was 6 v 6 game play. First we did a game where they were only allowed to set back row in-system, and only the pins out-of-system. After that, we played 22 v 22, with the rule that if a team won the initial rally via a middle attack they immediately won the big point.

Friday

The day’s first match was against Fort Lewis from the Rocky Mountain Conference. Our focus with the team on getting better starts seemed to help. We didn’t have a perfect first set, but we did win, 25-22. We were behind late in the second, but came back to win 28-26, hitting a solid .298 with 20 kills. Fort Lewis failed to recover and we jumped out to a big lead in the third. A slip in focus toward the end, though, allowed them to narrow the gap some, but we still won 25-20. Serving in the match was very solid. We only had 3 aces, while missing 11, but put the opposition out-of-system consistently.

The second match of the day was against Dallas Baptist from the Heartland Conference. This was the team, going in, we thought would be our strongest competition. On the day, at least, they probably were the better of the two teams. We rolled out to a pretty easy first set win, 25-16, keeping DBU to -.050 hitting. There was a LONG officials delay at the start of the second set, which may have impacted our performance somewhat. Things got a bit sloppy and we ended up losing 21-25. Things turned around in the third, though it was still tight. We managed a 25-22 win. Our serve was really on form in the fourth set, and we rolled to a pretty easy 25-19 win.

Saturday

The first match of the day was against  St. Edwards from the Heartland Conference. Unfortunately, this was not a good match. We didn’t come out well. It was quite a bit like last weekend in terms of passing poorly and making a lot of mistakes. We managed only six kills in the first set, against seven hitting errors. Things improved dramatically after that. We won the second set, but it remained a struggle the rest of the way and we lost in four.

Our final tournament match was vs. Southeastern Oklahoma State from the Great American Conference. In stark contrast to the first match, we jumped on this team with a relentless assault from the start, hitting .438 in the first set with 19 kills. Things cooled off considerably in the second set, but our block/defense kicked in to allow us to win. The offense returned to form in the third with even better defense, and we won going away.

Observations

The Rocky Mountain and Heartland Conferences are both part of the Division II South Central Region. That also includes the Lone Star Conference, which is the one we play in. That means our matches against those teams counted toward our regional rankings. At this writing, the first set of regional rankings for the year have not been posted. They will eventually be updated here.

We didn’t really do much in the way of video prep for this tournament. We showed the setters some footage of three teams, but that was it. We’ll do more moving forward.

All in all, it was a good tournament in terms of our development. In particular, the middle attack was much improved. It’s a long way from being where we want it to be, but the progress was clearly evident.

That’s it for the pre-conference action. Now on to Lone Start Conference play!

Game: Dig or Die Back Row Speedball

Volleyball Game

Synopsis:  This is a variation on the Speedball Winners idea as applied to a game with back row attacks only. The difference is that point scoring is collective and defensive intensity is highly encouraged.

Age/Skill Level: This is a game for intermediate to advanced players

Requirements: 12+ players, full court

Execution: Players are split, with half on each side. Those teams are then split into at least two groups. One group from each side starts on the court, with one of them serving to begin the rally. Once the rally plays out – back row attacking only – the losing team rotates out, with a new group from that same side serving to the winners and coming on. Points are earned for rally wins, with each side being a single team on the score board. If a team lets a ball drop without a touch, they lose all their points and go back to zero.

Variations:

  • For a higher tempo game you can start each play with a coach-initiated ball.
  • Depending on your numbers and training focus you can have fixed setters or not.
  • Again, depending on your level of play you can loosen up the must touch the ball requirement to must make a legitimate effort.

Additional Comments:

  • Playing multiple shorter games is probably better than playing one longer game. That way a single ball dropping isn’t quite so demoralizing (think being at 20 and going back to zero).

High school block and defense

volleyball blocker

This is the time of year when many coaches are problem-solving with there teams. Here’s one of them via a recent email.

Hi, I coach a varsity high school team. We are not very good at blocking. I am wondering if there are drill to work specific timing, and/or what defense would you suggests for weak blockers?

There are a couple of elements involved here. Let me try to address each.

Not good at blocking

Saying you’re not very good at blocking is a little too broad. That could mean we’re a short team, or it could mean we have technical problems. The request for a drill to work on timing tends to suggest the latter is what this coach is worried about. Since I can’t really help a coach with a short team, I’ll talk training ideas.

Unfortunately, timing isn’t a mechanical issue. You can’t break it down into positioning or movement patterns. It’s basically a decision based on judgement of the hitter’s attack. As such, there isn’t a drill to fix it. Players have to develop timing by blocking against hitters, and any drill or game where that happens will do.

The real issue is feedback, which is where coaching comes in. You have to first make the blocker understand they are not jumping on time, and then work with them on reading the cues to improve that timing. For the former, video is a very good tool. Set up your camera (a tablet will do) and either record them or use one of the video delay apps.

Recognition of block mistiming might be enough to fixed the problem, but if it isn’t you have to train your blockers how to judge the timing. That means knowing the hitter’s hitting power, seeing how far they are off the net, and reading the play to know if the hitter is likely to attack aggressively or use a shot.

Defense behind a poor block

The point of back row defense is to have players where the ball is most likely going. It’s a probability game, plain and simple. Yes, there are read based adjustments, but those are based on starting points and general areas of responsibility. This basic idea does not change based on block quality.

What does change, however, is placement of defenders. The block takes away a certain part of the court – or at least it’s meant to do that. The defense then is positioned around it in the areas attacks are likely to go. If your block is ineffective, though, you need to shift your defenders.

So that leaves us with a question: At your level of play, if there were no block, where would the hitters most likely hit the ball?

Answer that question and you have the answer to how to arrange your defense.

Kill percentage off perfect pass

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The following question came in from a reader the other day:

What percent of kills should we expect on a perfect pass? Serve receive or free balls?

The answer to this is reliant very much on level of play. High school girls probably do not score at the same rate as college men, for example. Unfortunately, the mailer didn’t tell me what level they are at.

I honestly don’t have a specific answer in any case. I reached out to Mark Lebedew from At Home on the Court to see what he had to say, and he told me in the men’s PlusLiga in Poland (the top professional division) it’s a 62% kills rate, with a 47% hitting efficiency. This struck me as low, but that just goes to show that personal impressions aren’t always (or even often?) right. 🙂

Mark went on to say the PlusLiga sideout rate off perfect passes is 72%.

I’m curious to hear what folks with good figures say about kill % and sideout rates at their level. If you have any data, please share via a comment below.

Coaching Log – September 5, 2016

MSU Logo

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for 2016-17.

Preseason has ended. School’s started. Now the real fun begins!

Monday

We started by getting the players to think about their own personal objectives and values. This will feed into the goal setting they do in conjunction with their upcoming individual meetings.

Practice began with a 4 v 4 cooperative downball, then jumping attack, drill. That was followed by target serving, after which we split the primary passers and the setters and MBs. The former did serving and passing with a specific focus on seam management. The latter focused on transition patterns for the middles.

We went on from there into a couple of 6 v 6 games. The first continued work on transition play. One team was given a pair of free balls to initiate a controlled attack to the other side (diggable balls). That was followed by a serve by the attack-receiving team. We kept track of how many off the attack-receive points were won by that team. If they then won the serve rally they would get that rally point, plus the other points. Otherwise, they got zero. That means they could earn between 0 and 3 points. After the serve rally the sequence was repeated for the other side, then both teams rotated. We played to 15.

The other 6 v 6 game was a standard one, but with a bonus. We gave them 3 points for winning a rally lasting at least 4 trips of the ball across the net. Unfortunately, only one rally went long enough for a bonus. It was a really good one, though.

Tuesday

We started with narrow court cooperative 2 v 2. There were four players on each side which swapped in and out each time the ball crossed the net. The first objective was 8 consecutive balls back and forth with good 3-touch execution, finishing with a down ball. They then moved up to doing 6 reps with a jump-and-swing.

From there we progressed to competitive 4 v 4 play – still narrow court.

Next was 5 v 5 v 5. One team of 5 served both sides. They got a point for aces and 1-passes, but lost points on missed serves. The other teams set up with 3 back row players and two front row. Initially, that was MB + RS vs. MB + OH, but we did a second round with just pin hitters. The two teams on-court earned points from rally wins, and the winning team received the next serve. The teams rotated through and cumulative points were kept.

From there we shifted to 6 v 6, using a version of bingo. Each team had two ways to score bingo points, which we changed halfway through the game. We kept two scores – one for bingo points, the other for normal rally points. The latter defined game length. The most combined points won.

The next game was 6 v Sixes. That’s where one side is fixed and receives every serve. The other side rotates players through on each new serve, based on the server’s position. That was played for time before mixing up the players on the fixed side.

Lastly we played dig-or-die. That’s game where points are scored in normally fashion, but if a team fails to at least touch a defensive or hitter coverage ball, they lose all their points. Rallies start by alternating down balls over the net. A front row/back row switch is made about halfway through.

Wednesday

We started practice by going through our pregame warm-up routine. We’ve done this a couple times now, but just wanted to make sure things go as smoothly as possible come Friday’s first official matches. Of course, the pregame warm-up is rather long, which means it ate into practice time. We played 6 v 6 almost the whole rest of the session, though.

In a continuation from what started on Tuesday, we shuffled around variations of what might be the weekend starters. I kept hitting stats to look both at individual hitter performance and to take a collective view with respect to setters.

Thursday

We traveled to Topeka, KS for our first road trip of the season. After a quick meal upon arrival in town, we had an hour long court session at hosts Washburn University. Unfortunately, one of our players got an ankle injury during the session. That’s the first of the year, so far.

Friday

Our first match of the day was against Pittsurg State from the MIAA. They were second from bottom last year, so not the strongest of opposition. We got off to a slow start, losing 25-18. We made a personnel adjustment at outside hitter going into the second set, and proceeded to win the next three sets rather easily: 14, 13, and 15. After a very weak start, our offense came on very strongly, with a hitting efficiency in the last two sets about .400.

The day’s second match was against hosts Washburn, who finished 4th in the MIAA last season and ended the year #18 ranked. This year they start #16 in the polls. In other words, a tough match. The first set reminded me of the Exeter women against Northumbria in the 2014 BUCS semifinals. We just got totally blitzed, 25-6.

The players recovered well, though. They were more aggressive and confident, in particular in serve. We didn’t get any aces, but we went from serving 1.2 in the first set to serving just shy of 2.0 in the latter two. It totally changed the complexion of the match. Washburn still won in three, but the last two sets were 25-19 and 25-23. We could have actually won the third. We went from hitting -.217 to .297 to .361 while taking them from .625 to .314 to .135. The loss of the third was probably because we had a few too many service errors (7).

Saturday

It was an early start, with our first match at 9:30 against Emporia State. They finished #8 in the MIAA last season. We felt we could win this one based on what we saw the day before. Our start was poor, however. We didn’t pass well at all in the first two sets (both below 1.8), so of course we didn’t hit well either. In the second set we were only 24% in sideout. The result was a pair of losses, 25-17 and 25-13.

We swapped setters for the third to give our freshman a chance. Things turned around from there. We won the next two sets fairly easily, 25-16 and 25-19. Unfortunately, we struggled a bit in the 5th, and lost 15-10.

The final match was against Missouri Western, who finished 5th in the MIAA last season. They are a solid team (received votes in the Coaches Poll), though not quite at Washburn’s level. We returned to the prior starting setter to begin, but once more suffered from a poor first set. After that, we put the freshman back in. We didn’t serve nearly aggressively enough in either set. As a result, they sided-out easily. It was 93% in the second set! We lost the first two 15 and 14.

Serving was much better in the third set. Our defense and block performed much better as a result. We still lost the third, 25-23, though, because of a few too many attack errors.

Observations

First let me talk about the competitive level. Obviously, we will not really focus on stuff like RPI this year as we rebuild the MSU team. Still, four matches against teams in a strong conference (4 teams currently ranked, and one just outside the Top 25) can’t help but provide an RPI boost. That’s unlikely to impact us at all in terms of this year’s post-season. A year-over-year rise in the overall rankings is the sort of thing external evaluators like to see.

Now to talk about the offense. One of the major observations on Friday was the massive difference in performance between when we spread the attack and when we did not. In both matches the vast majority of balls in the first set went to the outside. Not surprisingly, they struggled to be effective. Once we shared the ball around better, the OHs were much more successful.

Our biggest offensive issue was in the middle. At times it went well, but too often the connects were just off. Some of it was hitters not going fast enough. Some of it was inaccurate sets. Slides, in particular, were just not on at all. This will need work.

We also needed to get the right side more involved on Saturday.

Passing wasn’t bad overall for the tournament, but especially on Saturday we had too many 2-passes an not enough 3s. Defense was solid when we got teams out of system, though we need to do better digging harder balls outside our body line.

Bottom line is we got exactly what you hope to get out of your first tournament – to try a few things, see how the team performs in different situations, and get a clearer view of your developmental needs. Importantly, I think the team saw what sort of things they need to do to be successful. Now we just have to reinforce that.