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Coaching Log – September 11, 2017

This is an entry in my volleyball coaching log for the 2017-18 season.

Time for the second week of pre-conference action. We got a glimpse of where teams in the league might be at from the first week’s results, but only to a limited degree. In particular, Tarleton looked quite strong taking down two higher ranked teams. On the other hand, the two New Mexico schools both went 0-4, perhaps unexpectedly. It was against decent competition, though, so maybe not a good indication just yet. This week’s round of matches would help clear the picture up a bit further.

Monday

It was a light, recovery oriented return to the court after the prior weekend’s action. We took advantage of the holiday to do a midday session rather than our normal afternoon one. For about the first 20 minutes we talked about our performance and where we need to go to reach our season objectives.

The session itself was only about 60 minutes long. We did some ball-handling to warm-up generally, then used around-the-world serving to warm-up that part of things. The bulk of the session saw us work on serve-to-reception-to-middle/RS attack. In particular, we wanted to work on slides. They just weren’t where we need them to be.

The last part of practice was back on serving. I introduced the team to the Run & Serve drill. We wanted to do some pressure serving and I have used this drill with several teams over the years. It creates a the obvious pressure of making a serve while also adding the element of doing so immediately after physical exertion.

We adjusted it a little, though. First, we split the team over two courts to make it competitive (who finishes first). Second, we only served in one direction to avoid balls impeding our jump servers.

The initial round the objective was to get the serve in with the requirement that the ball not be higher than the height of the antenna. Not a major challenge for this level of player, but you have to start somewhere. It took one group two tries to finish, and the other three tries.

We did it one more time, making it a little tougher. Again, the serve had to be flat. Now it also had to land in the back third of the court. The same group who won the first time finished this one in just a handful of tries. The other group took several rounds longer. The comments after reflected the the players did indeed feel the pressure of it. One of them was heard to say it was like eight match point serves.

Tuesday

Back to the split sessions once more. We continued to have a serve receive to attack focus that we did quite a bit of last week. This time, though, there was much more focus on serving. We kept track of the servers in terms of both how effectively they were hitting their selected targets and how often they missed their serves.

I think broadly speaking those who did the best were at about 10% errors. The others remained about 20%, so basically what we saw from the weekend. In terms of hitting their targets, it seemed to be below 50%. Not exactly great figures. No doubt more work in these areas will follow.

Wednesday

Although it wasn’t necessarily our plan going in, we put the players under considerable pressure in this session. This came from two exercises.

The first was a high tempo transition oriented drill. We wanted to work on base reset and being stopped in defense and coverage. On one side a team of six was the focus. Their objective was to quickly get back to base and stopped before setter contact each time they attacked a ball over the net. Their objective was to do that five times in a row. Each cycle started with them getting a downball and running the offense. Once that rally was over, the other side had a ball tossed to the setter for them to attack. If at any point the focus team did not do their job, they reset back to zero. There was very little time between rallies, so it went very fast and was very demanding.

The other tough drill was one where we had the OHs attacking against a set double block. Their collective goal was to get to +10. Every good attack away from where a defender would be (including block-out attacks) was a +1. Any balls in or hitting the net or stuff blocks was a -1. Our MBs and RSs did the blocking. It was a frustrating experience for a couple of the hitters.

We finished up with regular games, but shortened. We want to create more of a focus on getting going strong in matches, so we decided to aim to be first to 8 in our games. We’re hoping that helps with the sluggish starts we had to all of our first four matches.

Thursday

This was a travel day as we headed south to Austin for the weekend’s tournament. We did, though, do a bit of a server & pass session when we got into town. It only went about 35 minutes, but was kind of intense. Mainly, we did alternating serve reception in rotations. After that, though, we did a couple of rounds of Continuous Transition and finished with pressure serving.

Friday

Our first match of the day was against Black Hills State, from South Dakota. They are a member of the RMAC, which is one of the three conferences in our NCAA region, making it a meaningful one for regional ranking purposes. In 2016 they finished in 10th, and the pre-season conference poll saw them finishing at a similar level this year.

This was a tricky match. Black Hills already had a match under their belt – a 5-set win over fellow Lone Star Conference team UT Permian basin. They definitely gave us some trouble early on. The first set was a close on that we lost 23-25. I think maybe the fact that we expected to win and didn’t played with our psyche some as we had a terrible second set. Also, we were mixing around the line-up a bit, experimenting some with a 6-2 system. We lost 12-25 and hit -.091. After that, things settled out. We won the next two 25-20 and 25-22. The fifth set was tight for a while, but we went on a long right on points and won easily, 15-7.

Overall, we hit .211 on the match. That, though, was seriously lowered by the poor second set. All the others were .225 or better, with the final two sets coming at .385 and .300. The work on serving during the week paid off. We had only 9 errors on the match out of 100 attempts. Our junior transfer DS tormented their serve reception, picking up 6 aces.

Our second match of the day was against the tournament hosts St. Edwards. We played them at our home tournament last year and lost rather disappointingly. They are from the Heartland Conference, with is also part of the trio of conferences comprising our NCAA region. So another meaningful match for the rankings. Last year they tied for 3rd in the conference standings and were picked to repeat that in 2017.

Once more, we had a difficult start to the match. A late comeback put us in position to win, but in the end we came up short at 26-28. We made 12 hitting errors on the set. From there we won rather convincingly, 25-20, 25-17, 25-15. This was one of our better defensive performances as we dug more than half of opponent attacks and had 13 blocks. As a result, they only hit .075 for the match. We only hit .185 ourselves, but if you drop that poor first set it would be .263.

Saturday

The final match of the tournament saw us play Southern Arkansas. They are from the GMAC, and not from an adjoining state, so are not a regional team. In 2016 they finished 10th in the conference, with the preseason poll seeing them come in at 11th this year.

We played a lot of players in this match, and for one whole set went with a 6-2. It definitely led to some sloppy play. In the end, we won 3-1 on scores of 25-20, 25-22, 24-26, 25-17. Honestly, the third set wasn’t really that close. That’s the one we went with the 6-2 on. It took a massive comeback in the latter stages to make it seem respectable.

Our offense was massive in this match, with a .353 final hitting efficiency. That’s the best an MSU team has done in about 10 years. The last set came in at .567, with 19 kills! Our freshman OH had 21 kills, with a better than 50% kill rate (her total of 25 points is tied for 4th in program history since keeping track). In fact, so did our junior transfer OH, who ended up at a .524 efficiency. Our defense, though, was poor. Overall, they hit .206, but that was dragged down by an .077 in the first set. Our blocking was all over the place, which not surprisingly left our defense exposed.

Final outcome

Our 3-0 weekend made us tournament champions, so we came away with exactly what we wanted. It was the first tournament sweep for the program in four years (that one was at home). Obviously, we’d liked it to have been a trio of sweeps, but we did get to see some new stuff that may pay off in the future. Our sophomore OH got some playing time after missing last the initial round of matches due to injury.

Not surprisingly, our players dominated the statistical leaders for the event. While it didn’t include the tally from the final match (played immediately after our last one), it likely was at least very close to the end results. We had three of the top 8 in terms of hitting efficiency, four of the top five in kills/set, four of the top seven in aces/set, and two in the top eight for blocks.

Or senior MB was tops in both efficiency (.389) and kills/set (3.31), as well as holding fourth in blocks (1.38). For that, she rightly was voted MVP. We honestly felt like she should have made all-tournament the previous week, but somehow we didn’t get anyone selected.

Our senior setter earned Setter of the Tournament. Our transfer junior OH was also picked to the all-tournament team.

John Forman
About the Author: John Forman
John currently coaches for an NCAA Division II women's team. This follows a stint as head coach for a women's professional team in Sweden. Prior to that he was the head coach for the University of Exeter Volleyball Club BUCS teams (roughly the UK version of the NCAA) while working toward a PhD. He previously coached in Division I of NCAA Women's Volleyball in the US, with additional experience at the Juniors club level, both coaching and managing, among numerous other volleyball adventures. Learn more on his bio page.

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