Coaching Log – September 4, 2017

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

The 2017 NCAA Division II season is underway!

Player meetings

As we prepared for the first weekend of competition, we did individual meetings with all the players. They were basically a check-in to talk about where each of them was at in their development, how they were feeling about the team, etc. Of course we also talked with each of them about where we see them vis-a-vis playing time.

Monday

After a weekend off, we were back in action on Monday. The players had an early morning weights session to kick things off. Unfortunately, it was also picture day for the team. Pictures were supposed to happen in the 15 minutes before practice. If you know anything about how this sort of stuff goes, though, you know it never takes that little time. We had a 2-hour practice slot scheduled, but I think we only got to go for something like 1:15 by the time the picture dust settled.

The abbreviated session ended up being mainly about competition. It started with Brazilian 2-ball. We did a upper-classmen vs lower-classmen game in Buenos Aires that the older team lost. They asked for a rematch, and won convincingly. Of course, now that means we’ll have to do it one more time to break the tie.

After that we did a serving warm-up, then moved on to back row Speedball 4s. From there it was on to what we call Side v Side. That’s a competitive version of the Cooperative Cross Court Hitting drill. We played a series of games to 4 points where only earned points counted (kills, blocks).

The last 15 minutes or so was a 6 v 6 game. We wanted something fast-paced, so coaches initiated balls to the side that lost the prior rally. While that was happening, the winning team did substitutions.

Tuesday

The players’ Tuesday class schedule makes it impossible to do a full team session, at least at any reasonable time of day. Further, we have several Tuesday matches. As a result, we opted to split the team into morning and afternoon groups based on availability. Serving and passing was the major focus of the groups for this week, but mainly with offensive and blocking elements added in. It was a tough day for the passers as the servers were really going at them.

Wednesday

More fitness testing and weights in the morning. We carried elements of Tuesday’s serve reception work in to the start of the day’s practice. First, though, we worked through a couple of elements of our pre-match warm-up. We’re making some adjustments to what we did last year.

The two core element of the session were games. First we did a 4 v  4 out-of-system game to work on that phase of play in terms of setting and hitting. We then shifted to 6 v 6 play to work through rotations.

Thursday

We practiced our pre-match warm-up at the beginning of the session to prepare for the weekend action. After that, we repeated the prior day’s serve/pass/attack drills, then moved on to 6 v 6 to continue working on rotations.

I think the session started out pretty well, but the focus seemed to drift as time went on. Lots of bad errors started to come in to the action. That suggested to me a mentally fatigued group.

Friday

Our competitive season started at Tarleton, our fellow Lone Star Conference team who was hosting a tournament. It’s an event that featured not only relatively short travel (about 2.5 hours), but also an interesting competitive mix.

Our first match of the day was against preseason #23 Rockhurst. The were the champions of the western division of the Great Lakes Valley Conference (GLVC) last year, and made the NCAA tournament. To be blunt, we played pretty poorly in a 3-0 loss (-8,-13,-17). You expect to have a tough time against good competition, but we just made too many mistakes and didn’t put them under nearly enough pressure.

The one bright spot was our serve reception. We passed better than 2.00. Also, in working through a few different lineup variations we got to something that seemed to put us on the right track moving forward.

The second match was against Maryville. They too represent the GLVC, but were at the bottom of the league in 2016. We started off poorly, managing only six kills in the first set, but our opponents made a number of errors that kept us in it and we eventually got our noses in front. The remaining two sets we were much more effect, hitting over .300 in both and getting comfortable wins for a 3-0 final result (-21,-21,-18).

Saturday

Our first match of the day was once more a challenging one. This time it was preseason #18 Central Oklahoma. UCO is a member of the MIAA, where they finished 3rd in 2016. The teams above them were Nebraska-Kearny, who we see in a couple weeks, and Washburn, who we played last season. Although they are not part of our NCAA region, UCO counts as regional opposition for us because they are from an adjoining state. That means playing them impacts our regional RPI. None of the others do.

This was a far better match for us than the initial one on Saturday. We had our struggles in the first set, just making a few too many errors. That improved in the second and third sets. Instead, we had UCO under constant pressure in rallies. It very nearly resulted in a win in Set 2. We were up 20-16, but just couldn’t close it out. In Set 3 we rode an 85% sideout rate to a relatively comfortable win. Unfortunately, the final set saw us fall back to making too many errors, so we lost 3-1 (-17, -22, 25-20, -21).

Service errors was a problem for us. We had 21 of them (against 6 aces). Our aggressiveness was rewarded in UCO only passing 1.80 on the match, but all the misses contributed to an overall sideout rate of nearly 70%. In contrast, we passed a 2.26, which was the best of the weekend.

It has to be said, this was probably the best match MSU Volleyball has played in years when you consider the caliber of competition. The energy level was great. We just needed to be a bit cleaner in our execution and to close things out better when we had the chance.

The final match of the tournament for us was against Southwest Baptist. They were the bottom team in the MIAA last year. I figured going in it would be a trap match after the big energy exerted in the first. I was right.

We really struggled to get back going again to start the match. The unsurprising result is that we fell behind early in the first set. Our offense was pretty ineffective and we weren’t stopping them. We managed to start to get the engine rolling as the set progressed, but a bit too little, too late, so we lost a close one.

After that, we ended up winning relatively comfortably, though it didn’t always feel like it. We hit .400 in the final set, which pulled our final hitting efficiency up to .195 for the match. That gives you an idea of how enemic our attack was for much of the time. It was our middles who led the charge there. As the match progressed they became nearly impossible to stop. Our freshman went 4 for 5 in the final set. The end result was a 3-1 win (23-25, -19, -18, -14).

For the fourth time in a row we passed better than 2.0 in this match. We arguably made too many serving errors once more (15), but this time we got the aces (13) to balance that out.

Thoughts from the tournament

All in all, the 2-2 record on the weekend is what I expected. I would have liked our first and last matches to have been better ones, but you expect that kind of thing early in the season with as many new players as we’ve got.

The UCO match definitely showed us what this team is capable of. It’s going to be a question of building from there. There are definitely things we need to get better at. I think we could dig hard attacks better than we did. We can vary up our attacks – in particular our OH attacks – more than we did, both in terms of direction and mixing in shots. Obviously, serving needs to improve. I think overall we missed about 19%, which is simply too high.

The thing I did like is how many improvements we made just over the course of the event. The middle connections became better. Our new players definitely learned some good lessons, while our experienced players were very solid and consistent, as you’d hope.

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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