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