Coaching Log – October 9, 2017

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

The Lone Star Conference standings weren’t really all that much more clear after the weekend’s results. Notable was West Texas losing to both Western New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico. Also, Kingsville dropped a pair of 3-2 matches at home to Angelo and Tarleton. At 5-1, Tarleton topped the league going in to the new week, and is in a strong position given who they’ve beaten already. Below there, the next eight teams are within 2 losses of each other.

Monday

Strictly video for the team today – aside from morning weight training. We broke the team into three groups and they watched footage from different matches we’ve played so far. It was on them to critique themselves – positively and negatively – with an eye toward how we can get better.

Tuesday

Back to split team training. Both groups did basically the same set of exercises. A big focus was on improving our middle play. We also did some work to diversify the offense a bit. This was all done in the context of serve receive and defense transition.

A number of the teams in the conference played non-conference matches this night. They all won, which was good.

Wednesday

We started the session with split group work. While the OHs and DS worked on some serve & pass, the MBs, RS, and Setter first did some blocking, then worked on offensive connections. A 6 v 6 game followed. In this case, only the pin hitters could attack, and they had to swing cross-court. Every time a rally ended we gave the winning team a down ball, but mixed players around every so often. That kept them from wearing down in what was definitely an up-tempo game. We played to 25, then switched it up so the attacks had to be line – or line/6 – for another game.

After that we did a kind of offense vs. defense game in rotations. On side served every ball. Initially, they played first to three points based on simple rally wins. The receiving team could not rotate until they won one of these mini games. To make it a bit tougher, after a while we shifted to wash scoring. After the initial serve rally, we initiated a free ball to the serving team. One team had to win both rallies to earn a point. The games were still to 3 points.

Thursday

We did a session of maybe 1 hour and 40 minutes before hopping on the bus to start are weekend road trip. We did a lot of serve and pass interspersed with 6 v 6 play. For the first part of practice we only had one middle, so we needed to give her some breaks.

We did two versions of game play. One was a variation where one side received free balls and attacked at a defending team. The defensive side got 2 points for a stuff block and one point for a good dig-set-attack sequence. They didn’t need a kill, just a good swing beyond the block. We went for time, then flipped the attacking side. There were two total rounds, with the team accumulating the most points as defenders winning (offense got no points).

The other game was the wash drill I mentioned above from Wednesday’s session. We focused on the rotations in receive that featured our freshman MB. That was to keep working on developing her connection with the setter on different sets. Also, she continues to need to improve her spacing.

Friday

It was back on the road for a match against defending league champions Angelo this day. They came in 3-3 in conference. Despite that record, they clearly represented a significant challenge. They were #16 in the national poll and featured the best offense in the conference by the numbers. What we found out during warmups was they had three players who were either starters or regular contributors out due to injury. That shifted them from primarily a 6-2 offense to a 5-1.

We should have been able to challenge them, but we came up short. At times we hardly looked like we’d ever played together before. We served them well, and had them scrambling often, but just couldn’t take the chances we were given. Our offense was pathetic, hitting at just .053 in terms of efficiency.

Saturday

Back to Tarleton for a match-up with last year’s runners-up. They came in at #15 in the national poll. Here too we discovered the opposition had suffered a key injury. Their All-American OH sustained a foot injury the night before in their win over Cameron.

We came in with a MUCH better attitude and took the match to them. In particular, our block made a big impact. We had 5 or 6 in the first set alone, and ended up with 13 overall. Despite the fact they had more than double our kills in the first set, we pulled off the win. After that, though, it was down hill. Offensively, we were even more impotent than we’d been the night before. Both our middles hit negative. This is definitely a major concern, though we were pleased to see that our starting OPP is getting more aggressive in attack.

Coaching Log – October 2, 2017

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

The uncertainty of where teams rank in the Lone Star Conference remains after more interesting weekend results. One of them was Cameron beating Western New Mexico on Saturday after Western beat us Friday. Angelo grabbed wins at both West Texas and UTPB, so there are no longer any winless teams. That loss by West Texas means every team also has at least one loss. Very interestingly, Kingsville beat both Commerce and Texas Woman’s at home.

This is setting up for a VERY interesting LSC season!

Every team has played at least four matches now. Statistically, we rank 5th in hitting efficiency and 3rd in opponent efficiency. We’re 4th in kills/set and 1st in opponent kills/set. In terms of blocks, we are currently 6th in our per set average, and 1st in opponent blocks. For serving, we are 2nd in aces/set, though we’re 8th in aces suffered. We’re 4th in digs/set and 7th in opposition digs. All in all, not a bad. We can certainly get better, but it suggests a competitive team.

Monday

We again started the session with a stat review. Then we moved on to talk about the next evening’s opposition. Once we got to work, there were two major focus points. One was better spacing for our Middles on their quick attacks. The other was minimizing errors without getting too conservative. We focused on the latter via the scoring system we used.

First up was an out-of-system game (first ball initiated to the setter). Errors resulted not only in a point for the other team, but also a point deduction for your own side. We played that one to 15.

The second game was a normal one. In this case, though, if a team made an error their score reverted to 0. We played to 8.

Tuesday

This was our away match against our travel partners, Cameron. They came in 1-3 in conference and 3-8 overall. After finishing bottom of the league with only one win in 2016, Cameron replaced their coach. The preseason expectations, however, were for more of the same in 2017. They did, though, just beat Western NM on Saturday.

Interestingly, unlike most teams running a 5-1 offense, Cameron have been employing a formation where the MB leads the setter rather than trailing. It’s a formation that lacks some flexibility in serve receive. That can be overcome, though, if you have the right mixture of personnel. It definitely gave us something different to look at and deal with.

This was a very disappointing match, resulting in a 3-1 loss. In many ways it was similar to how we played on Friday. Against a team where we really just needed to hit basically half a court with our serves we missed 11 – several at bad times. Our offense hit at a season-worst .106 efficiency thanks to being at basically 20% errors. Our middles combined to hit negative. Mentally we were just all over the place with how we played and our decision-making. It was extremely frustrating to watch.

Wednesday

We meant for this session to be a shorter one, but it didn’t really end up that way.

Before practice we made the decision to go right into things without much in the way of “warm-up” activity. That was to get them out of their comfort zone and to make them realize they can play without everything being just so. That’s not to say we made them play without any warm-up, of course.

We started them off with Brazilian 2-ball tennis. As usual, the energy was high and the players were competitive. From there we jumped into 6-v-6. We repeated the “back to zero” game from Monday.it took a while for one team to finally get to 8. Missed serves were definitely a killer. Unfortunately, while blocking our second string setter suffered broken pinky finger.

Then things got tough. We did an offense vs. defense exercise we’ve done a couple times before. It’s one were the defensive side needs to demonstrate discipline in movement and being set before contact and covering their attackers. We keep feeding balls into the setter on the attacking team until the defenders reach their goal. The first few rounds went fairly well. Then we hit a bad one. It went on and on and on. Players on both sides were exhausted, which just make things harder and harder. There was a serious mental breakdown on the defensive side. We had a long group chat after about how we have to fight through that sort of situation and beat the drill.

We finished up with a last 6 v 6 wash exercise. One team received a serve. If they won that rally, the serving team attacked an out-of-system ball at them through Position 4. If they also won that, they had another OOS ball hit at them from Position 2. Winning that rally earned them a point. If the lost a rally anywhere along the way, the sequence restarted at the serve. Our major focus for this last exercise was middle hitter spacing on quick attacks, to continue a theme for the week.

Thursday

After a scouting report session ahead of Friday’s match, we began the session with the competitive version of the cooperative cross-court hitting game. We included our middles as blockers to give them some work on better closing their blocks. Offense vs. defense followed, with a focus on middle/left attacking vs middle/right blocking. The last bit of game play was a standard 6 v 6 using “bank your points” scoring.

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it all the way through the game. Our third string setter took an elbow to the head that sidelined her for the remainder of the session. She was eventually diagnosed with a concussion. We wrapped things up with some pressure serving.

Friday

Back home for our next conference match, this time against Texas Woman’s. Preseason voting put them at 8th this season, one place ahead of us. They came into the match at 2-2 in the LSC and 4-8 overall. Several of those losses, though, were against strong teams. In their prior match they lost in four to Kingsville.

This match was night and day different from Tuesday. The energy was far, far better. No uptight start to the match for a change. We played a very clean, efficient match. Our serves kept them under constant pressure, with six aces against 8 errors. We made only 9 hitting errors in 98 swings, and got a solid 37 kills for a .286 efficiency. By contrast our opponent hit only .104. Not surprisingly, we won 3-0.

This was MSU’s first victory over TWU since 2010, and the first at home since 2009.

Saturday

Commerce was the foe this day. They were picked to finish 4th in the preseason poll after coming in 5th in 2016. They entered the match at 3-2 in the conference and 7-7 overall after beating Cameron the night before. We saw them the first week of the season at the Tarleton tournament where they played the same schedule we did. Their results were comparable. They defeated Cameron 3-1 on Friday.

Unfortunately, we did not repeat the performance of our previous match. Commerce came in ranked top in the conference in blocks/set, and for sure that prowess played a part in the match. We had our troubles offensively, only hitting for a .114 efficiency. The biggest issue, though, was a lack of fight. We didn’t have any, really, until the third set. Had we made fewer hitting errors in that frame, we might have extended the match. As it was, we ended up going down 3-0.

The only bright spot was that our middles both hit pretty well and got their share of digs. That’s a part of our game that needs to reassert itself if we’re to improve going forward.

Additional news

You may recall that during warm-ups before our first home match of the year our freshman OH went down with a knee injury. She did a lot of damage, including tearing her ACL. So she’s done for the year. On the plus side, her spirits are good and reports about her rehab pre-surgery and prospects for recovery after are quite good.

Game Scoring System – Bank Your Points

Want a way to encourage your team to fight to win long rallies? Or alternatively, want to encourage them to extend a rally rather than go for a kill when it’s not really a good opportunity? Here’s a scoring system that could do the trick. You can use it for normal 6 v 6 play, and also for small-sided games.

Here’s how it works. After the ball is served, you count how many times it crosses the net during the course of the rally. The team which wins the rally gets that many points added to their score.

Let’s walk through an example. The receiving team attacks the ball and the serving team digs it. That’s one time crossing the net (serve does not count). The defenders then attack back, making it two net crossings. The count goes up to three when the dig rebounds back over the net as a free ball. The serving team then gets a kill on the attack which follows. The attack is the 4th crossing, so four points to the serving team.

Or you could choose not to count the final attack. Your call. I think you get the idea.

Here’s something you can also consider. One thing we generally would rather not see is our servers missing after a we’ve just won a long rally. To bring that sort of thing into focus, you could add a little wrinkle to the scoring. If a player misses their serve, the other team is awarded the value of the last rally win. This is not very penal after a quick sideout, but very much so after a long exchange.

Depending on your level and/or particular focus for the game, you could start each rally with something other than a serve. Also, you could chose not to count free balls in the net-crossing tally. No doubt you can think of your own variations.

Player-to-coach feedback from a team exercise

At the beginning of 2017 the Midwestern State (MSU) head coach gave everyone on the program – players and coaches – a task. Based on the book One Word that will Change Your Life, we each had to come up with a word that represented something in our life that we wanted to improve or otherwise focus on. The was about both volleyball and life. I chose the word consistency. For me that was mainly a personal thing.

The year 2016 was a big transitional one for me. I started the year in Sweden coaching profession, but then rather abruptly left. After spending about a month in Long Beach, CA, I then moved to Texas to coach at MSU in a very new locale, with new people, and in a new situation. I never felt like I settled things down into a good routine for myself personally. That is what motivated my word choice.

I was not thinking about volleyball when I picked my word – at least not directly. I believe I do a good job of being consistent with my teams (see this Volleyball Coaching Wizards podcast). It’s a focus point for me, and my prior teams gave me positive feedback about it. More consistency in my personal life, though, would no doubt have positive knock-on effects to my coaching work

Fast forward to the early part of the 2017 volleyball season. The head coach brought us all together one day for an exercise. We were all given a sheet of paper and told to put our name and our word at the top. We then passed everyone’s papers around the room. One by one we wrote positive comments on each person’s paper about how they were doing with respect to their word – and perhaps more broadly.

Below you can see the front and back of my sheet. You’ll also notice that someone decided to give me a new title, and several smiley faces were added. Not sure who did that, but “Papa” has now stuck. :-/

Naturally, the comments focus on consistency. After all, that’s my word. I was glad to see that they also appreciated other things I try to bring with me, though. Knowledge is obviously one of those, as you’d hope if you’re coaching! The other is a sense of humor. Volleyball is a game. Being part of a team should be fun. We shouldn’t take things – or ourselves – so seriously that we forget that.

I hesitate to call this proper feedback. After all, it was specifically intended to be positive. That makes it pretty one-sided. Still, it at least helps one to see if certain things are getting across.

Click for full-sized version

Coaching Log – September 25, 2017

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

There were some really interesting results in the conference over the weekend! Most notably, Angelo lost both times out – at Commerce and at Texas Woman’s. That was a stunner. This was the #6 team in the poll losing to two unranked ones, and making many more errors than we’re used to seeing them make. Commerce also beat #14 Tarleton, which means they have to be taken very seriously now. Tarleton managed to beat Texas Woman’s, but not easily.

The other interesting set of results happened in New Mexico. Recall I reported last week that Western NM swept Eastern NM on Tuesday night at Western. Well, on Friday Eastern hosted Kingsville and won easily. Kingsville then went to Western on Saturday and beat them without much problem.

Monday

We started out with a review of the stats from the weekend and a bit of video to look at places we want to improve. That’s mostly to do with block and defense. From there it was a relatively short session with a strong game orientation.

After warming up, we played a continuous out-of-system attacking game. That was largely aimed at working on closing up our block on higher sets. The rest of the time was a serve receive and transition game. The teams switched off serving five balls and we went through all the rotations.

Tuesday

A few players did extra work, but we didn’t have any official practice this day. Instead, the two groups that normally went did bystander training with one of our Associate Athletic Directors. All teams have to do it, and this was the best option we could see.

Some of the other teams in the conference played matches. In a match up of the two teams we just played, West Texas easily beat UTPB at home. The really interesting match, though, was Texas Woman’s hosting Commerce. The former won fairly comfortably, which keeps us all wondering how the league will fall out this year.

Wednesday

Practice was mixed. After splitting out to do serving and passing on one court and attacking with the MBs and RS on the other, we brought it back to 6 v 6. We did the same sort of offense vs. defense we used on Monday, with some bonus points on offer.

The other 6 v 6 work we did was the 22 v 22 game. We put the focus on first-ball kills by giving the receiving team the automatic point if they got an immediate kill. The serving team got an automatic point for an ace or a block on the initial attack. Honestly, we lacked a bit of focus. It probably showed most in fairly poor passing.

At the end of practice we did more pressure serving. This was were things got difficult. They struggled. Frustration was clear. We stopped after several rounds without the team completing the objective. It was the end of our practices slot. We talked about the poor energy and how we needed to learn to push through in these situations. It was like our West Texas match from the prior Friday. To their credit, the captains pushed to continue. That’s what we did, and the energy was much better. They still didn’t finish, as we had to clear the gym. The serves were much better all around, though.

In the sole match of the night featuring conference teams, Angelo faced off against Tarleton for the second time. Recall that Angelo won the first one in a sweep. This time it was Tarleton taking the win, and on Angelo’s home court at that. That gave Angelo three losses, which is more than they had in-conference all of last season.

Thursday

The day’s session started with a scouting report on Friday’s opponent. Then we had a fairly lively session. It wasn’t the cleanest, most focused though. Basically, that’s in keeping with the pattern of the week.

We started with Brazilian 2-ball to get their competitive juices flowing. From there we moved into a 7 v 7 out-of-system game. What that entailed was two blockers on each pin, no MB, and three back row defenders. When a team was on offense, the outside of the two pin blockers peeled off the court, so only the inside ones were attackers. We did this to try to ensure high ball swings against good blocks.

From there, two keep working on serve receive offense, we did a 6 v 6 wash game. Each team received three serves. To earn a big point, they had to win two of the three service rallies. If not, it was a wash. After both teams received, we rotated.

Because we had some players leave for class, we went into backrow 4s after the 6s. We finished up with more of the pressure serving.

Friday

Finally, we had our first home match of the season! We hosted Western New Mexico. They were 7th in the preseason poll. That’s one place below their 2016 final standing. They came in at 1-8 overall, but some of those losses were against good teams, including two in the Top 25. Their size gave us real problems last year, but we should handle that better this season. They came into our match at 1-1 in conference after beating Eastern NM and losing to Kingsville in the first week.

Our match started poorly. During warm-ups our freshman OH injured herself. One more thing in a difficult week (see below). I don’t think she was going to start, but she might have gotten some playing time. She’s played quite a bit up to this point and done reasonably well.

The match was very frustrating. Errors dominated – mainly ours. We lost 3-1. Our players earned 66 points from kills, aces, and blocks. They only managed 51. And yet the scores were 17-25, 25-15, 23-25, and 17-25. There were 15 errors of the service variety, and 27 in attack. Of the latter, 11 came in the final set. So even though we kept them to hitting only .132 – partly with the help of 12 blocks, we only managed .139 ourselves. We failed to keep sustained pressure on them from the service line when they were definitely struggling in reception.

Things could have been very different had we finished the comeback we began in the third set. We fell behind early, again thanks to errors. Things turned around, though, and we narrowed the gap Unfortunately, a hitting error on a 1 v 1 swing on the right ended the set.

All in all, just too many sub-par performances. Our sophomore OH and senior MB both, though, had good nights going, but together accounted for seven of the 11 hitting errors in the fourth set. Our senior libero had an all-together off night in both serving and passing, and while our senior setter had some very good patches, she was uneven in her decision-making.

On the plus side, it was largely fixable stuff. Also, our senior OH, who we put in the O1 position because she’s been doing really well against bigger blocks and had a good week of practice, had a very good match. She tallied 18 kills, picked up 3 aces and 8 digs playing mainly front row.

Saturday

Our second home match was against Eastern New Mexico. They were picked in preseason as the 6th best team. That’s two places lower than where they ended last season. No doubt a part of that move is the loss to graduation of by far their best hitter. They came in at 3-7 overall, and as with Western they’ve played some good teams (three in the Top 25). We split with them last year, with each of us winning on the other team’s court. They defeated Cameron on Friday, 3-1.

We got on top of them quickly in the first set, with the help of good targeted serving. Eastern. It was an easy 25-17 win in the end, but Eastern got better. They took an early lead in the second set, but we kept it close and eventually pulled ahead to win 26-24. In the third set we were generally on the front foot. We won 25-21 to take the match 3-0.

Our passing wasn’t the best, at just 1.84, but we were about 64% siding out. Our serves produced 9 aces against only 5 errors, and we scored at 49%. Eastern is a very solid defensive team, so our kill % was lower than usual, but we kept our errors down to hit for a .233 efficiency on the match. At the same time, our defense was equally stout. We held them to just .142. Our senior OH continued her good attacking play led all hitters with 13 kills on the match.

By the way, we actually had a full squad of cheerleaders at the match. The head coach said it was he first time she can remember that happening. Last year a couple of them would show up and sit in the stands. This time they actually were in full action.

A difficult week off the court

We found out early on Wednesday that a football player injured in the team’s game on Saturday died as a result. It hit the campus hard, as you can imagine. The head coach gave the players a chance to talk through what they were feeling before we got practice started that day. There were a lot of tears. I’ve heard of football players dying on the field, but never from an injury sustained during play.

Coaching Log – September 18, 2017

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

It’s Lone Star Conference time!

The latest AVCA Coaches Poll for Division II saw two LSC teams in the Top 25 – Angelo at #5 and Tarleton at #14. Both of them moved up after playing in a very competitive tournament the prior weekend. Angelo’s only lost thus far was in four to the current #2 team in the country, defending champions Concordia-St. Paul. Tarleton to this point has had the toughest schedule in the conference. Entering this week, they had played all but two matches to-date against currently ranked teams. One of them was Angelo, who beat them rather convincingly in tournament play.

Conference teams also played a number of midweek matches. In most cases they were against teams from the Heartland Conference, which is part of our NCAA region. The LSC teams all but one of them, which is good for our teams’ regional rankings.

Monday

We spent about 30 minutes at the start of practice talking first about how we’re doing in our key statistical metrics related to serving, passing, and hitting, and then about our psychology at the start of sets. Naturally, that ate into our on-court time. This resulted in a shortened session.

Most of the time we were in in two groups. On one court the defensive players worked on digging harder attacks, while on the other the net players worked on blocking. In the case of the latter, a lot of attention was on eye focus (e.g. ball-setter-ball-hitter). Specifically, we need to do a much better job with hitter tracking and block timing.

The split group work took up about and hour of practicing. That left about 30 minutes for the remainder. Most of that was a repeat of the drill we did last week where we went high tempo and had them focused on quick positional movements and stopping before contact. We finished the session with more pressure serving.

Tuesday

Another day for the split groups. Continuing from Monday’s work, we focused a lot on blocking. Each session ran the same sequence of drills. We started with a serving warm-up, then some target work. From there we shifted to serving & passing. As as been the pattern of late, we began with 2-person reception covering the whole court. We use it to ensure the passers continue to work on good movement to the ball since they have to cover more ground.

The progression from there was to 3-person reception, with hitting and blocking added. Half the time it featured MB/OH attack vs MB/RS block, while the other half the time we reversed it. The two attacker options kept the block from cheating, and in some cases forced them to track moving hitters.

Next up was a variation on the Cooperative Cross-Court Hitting drill. In this case we only had one back row player, plus a blocker. The idea was to work on the defense playing around the block in their specific area of responsibility. We made it competitive as well, with teams scoring via earned points (kills and blocks).

The last primary exercise repeated the repetitive transition drill we used the prior week. That’s the one were the 6-player team needed five consecutive plays where they quickly returned to base after an attack, while also being disciplined in hitter coverage. Failure to do so saw the team revert back to zero in their count.

Each group ended with more pressure serving akin to Run & Serve.

Wednesday

We continued working on blocking this session, alongside some serve and pass and defense. Slides, though, were the big focal point. We want to get better running them, and at the same time we knew defensively we’d be facing them from upcoming opposition. Aside from just working on the timing and tempo, we created a game situation which encouraged them. This was in the form of a game where only the receiving could score. Specifically, they could only score if they first ran a slide out of serve reception. They didn’t need a first ball kill, though. They simply needed to win that rally. Whichever team won the rally earned the right to receive. Some good progress seemed to be made offensively. Defense could still use work, though.

Thursday

Back on the road once more. But first, we did a midday practice. We contemplated doing a practice at our destination. The MSU men’s soccer team had a match there that the team wanted to attend, though, so we opted for the earlier practice choice.

We used the opportunity to get some focused attacking done by the OHs and RS. They haven’t had the attention of late that the MBs got. To do so we did some pass-to-attack with targeted swings. The remainder of the session was given over to 6 v 6 play where we whistled on failures in defensive or coverage discipline.

The soccer team won their match, by the way. They left it VERY late, though. When they scored right near the end of the first overtime the whole team ran over to celebrate in front of where we sat in the bleachers. Great scene!

Friday

The first match of our 2017 LSC season was away to West Texas A&M. They finished 6th in the league in 2016 and were voted in at 5th in the pre-season conference poll. They went 4-0 in their opening weekend tournament at home, but were only 1-3 last weekend. That could have been influenced by having to change plans late. They were supposed to play in Florida, but had that event cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. That forced a scramble, which resulted in them playing in a tournament in Illinois.

Of note, WT is one of the two schools where video challenge is supposed to be available this year. It wasn’t ready for our match, though.

Definitely not our best match. Based on post-match comments, we just never had the right mindset. It showed. Too much feeling of the pressure to win and not enough fun. It showed up for sure in our serving, which simply did not put enough pressure on the opposition. Way too many ended up in 6. We also seemed to feel like we had to do more than just the simple things, resulting in too many errors – especially early on. Midway through the 2nd set we did get our noses in front, but could not hold it. That was our only real opportunity.

In the end we hit an anemic .153 (by our potential). We let them hit .243. Just let them run in-system too much. There weren’t a lot of bright spots, but our freshman OH did get 12 kills and hit for a reasonable percentage. Also, our libero grabbed 23 digs.

We also played Nebraska-Kearney the same day. They won the MIAA last year and came in at #6 in the latest poll. West Texas arranged for both of us to play them. Obviously, we did not expect to win this one. We agreed to play it to help our strength of schedule. As with playing the other ranked teams, it could factor in to our chances of making the NCAA tournament. Naturally, that only happens if we have a good season.

This match was much more free and fun. We weren’t shy about going after them. They’re obviously a good team, and they handled us in the first two sets, but we definitely put them under pressure in the third. They actually were up on us 18-13 in that set, but we came storming back. We had two serves for set point, but ended up going down 26-28.

Our senior MB had a very good match. She hit .538 and picked up a trio of blocks. We also got some other players court time. Our current second setter ran the offense in the final set. Our freshman RS was a serving sub. She was instrumental in our comeback. Our sophomore OH also got some time as she continues to ramp up after an early season injury. She performed well enough to earn the start on Saturday.

Saturday

UT Permian Basin was the second LSC match of the campaign. They finished 10th last year, and are expected by the voters to finish there again this year. It is worth remembering, though, that their 5-set comeback win at the end of last season allowed us to reach the conference tournament. We saw them at the St. Edward’s tournament when were were there. They went 1-2 overall, beating Southern Arkansas, but falling in 5 to Black Hills, and in 4 to the hosts. They also lost on Tuesday in 4 to Lubbock Christian among that day’s LSC-Heartland match-ups. On Friday, though, they beat Cameron in their conference opener, 4-1.

Honestly, although it was a comfortable 3-0 win in the end, this one was too see-saw. We were clearly the better team, but gave up runs that let UTPB close the gap a couple different times. For example, in the first we were up 12-5, then saw them fight back to 13-12. Then we were up 20-14, and let them get it to 22-20. In the third we led 23-18, but let them get it to 23-21. Only in the second set did we run away with the game.

Our first set hitting percentage was only .211, but we were much better after that to end the match at .298. We kept them to just .109. Our junior OH hit .535. Our freshman MB, who has struggled lately with her connections, went for a solid .429, and our senior MB grabbed 5 blocks.

Interestingly, UPTB employed a triple block against the latter when we were in-system in serve receive. Obviously, they did their scouting and saw that she is a leading attacker for us. The problem is we are not so one-dimensional as that. That strategy left big space for our pin hitters, which we exploited ruthlessly.

In other news

On Wednesday we reached the end of a drawn out saga related to one of our freshmen middles. Because she failed a class during the final high school term, she came up a half year short of meeting the NCAA’s core requirements for eligibility. That made her a “partial qualifier”. Basically, this means she is eligible to practice, but cannot compete and cannot travel (she missed the Buenos Aires trip and hasn’t been with us for our two tournament trips). This applies to her whole first year. It’s kind of like an academic red shirt situation. The NCAA basically forces student-athletes in this situation to focus on their school work. We hoped to get the NCAA to reverse the ruling, but in the end our efforts were for naught.

Considerations in serve reception ratings

In the article Scoring Serving and Passing Effectiveness I talk about the common usage of a 0-3 type of scale for rating serve reception. In this post, fellow volleyball blogger Hai-Binh Ly discusses how he progressed defining these ratings. Basically, he’s reached the point of using very defined zones to judge a pass’s rating. These are the zones defined within the commonly used DataVolley statistical program. Ly outlines them in his post.

I have my concerns with rigid definitions. Ly mentions some of them with respect to grey areas, but I would focus more on the fact that they fail to account for setter athleticism. Simply stated, a pass that might only be a 1 for a given setter might be a 2 for a quicker one. It could even be a 3. Think about a tight pass that a short setter cannot handle, but a taller one has no problem with.

The thing we have to keep in mind is the underlying idea behind these pass ratings.

The intention was to speak to the probability of earning the sideout. This is what Dr. Jim Coleman had in mind when he developed the rating system. The premise is that a 3-pass results in a sideout some percentage of the time. A 2-pass, on average, sees a team sideout at some other frequency – most likely lower. And so on down the line. From this perspective, a team’s average pass rating indicates its approximate sideout rate.

If pass ratings are going to approximate sideout success rates, then it makes sense to use a more discretionary rating approach. By that I mean rating passes based on the circumstances of the team in question. In other words, what can your setter do with the ball? Rigid definitions for each pass rating do not make sense in that context.

If, however, we want to compare serve reception across teams, or between players, then a more fixed system is more appropriate. In that case, we need a common system of measurement. That removes setter variability from the equation.

So which is best?

As a coach, it depends on your setters. Are they of similar quality? If so, you can use the more discretionary approach. If they are noticeably different, though, you probably have to go with a more rigid system. This is especially true if your passers do not work with each setter basically the same amount of time. It’s the only fair way to compare them.

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.

Pre-conference vs. pre-season

I want to address something that confuses volleyball people outside the US at times.

In professional sports – including volleyball – pre-season preparation includes a certain amount of external competition. They televise and analyze these games in the NFL, for example. In other sports, not so much.

Volleyball is one of those sports.

Professional teams (and non-pros as well) play loads of matches during their pre-season which they call friendlies. I watched one in 2015 when I was at Bühl. They hosted a Dutch team. If I remember correctly, they played something like 15 friendlies in 2014. That’s over the course of a pre-season lasting about two months. When I coached in Sweden, we played 5 or 6 friendlies during our month of preparation.

But they don’t count for anything.

Yes, my Svedala team won a pre-season tournament in Denmark. It did not, however, influence any kind of standings or rankings. This is where things are very different for NCAA teams.

In US college volleyball teams play lots of matches before they get into conference play. We don’t call them friendlies, though. We call them pre-conference or non-conference matches (not all happen before conference play) and they count toward our official season. The NCAA permits teams to play on a specific number of dates. Conference matches take up a certain number of those dates. Schools fill the rest with non-conference matches.

Once upon a time, pre-conference matches served the same purpose as do friendlies in the professional game. They helped prepare a team for conference play. Maybe also to give non-starters some playing time – especially when they happen during the conference season.

Then there came into consideration at-large bids to the NCAA championship tournament. Tournament selection committees had to compare teams from all over the country, which saw things like strength of schedule, polls, and eventually the RPI and Performance Indicator develop. And of course, once you have those things, you get schools aiming to make themselves look attractive to the committee. Generally speaking, teams don’t control their conference schedule. That just leaves their non-conference schedule open to manipulation.

Let me provide an example from NCAA Division II.

At this level the first three rounds of play are regionalized. By that I mean the country has been divided up into 8 regions. Each comprises a group of conferences. From those conferences, a committee selects eight teams to compete in their NCAA Regional tournament. The regional tournament winners then advance to the national quarterfinal round.

The eight teams who reach the regional tournaments do so in two ways. First are the automatic qualifiers. Those are the champions of the conferences in that region. Midwestern State is in the NCAA’s South Central region as part of the Lone Star Conference. The Heartland Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference are the other two conferences in the region. The winner of each earns an automatic bid to the NCAA regional tournament.

Now that three automatic spots are covered, that leaves five for the selection committee to fill. These are done primarily from the Region’s ranking of teams. The rankings reflect how teams in the region do against each other and how they do against common opponents, among other factors.

So if a team wants to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA regional tournament it must demonstrate its strength relative to other prospective at-large teams in that region. Teams do so by playing non-conference teams within the region. It can also mean playing teams outside the region that demonstrate your level of play in comparison to others.

The bottom line is that non-conference match selection matters for at least some teams. Not only must a team select its opposition well, it must do well against them. This is why we don’t call them friendly, and why we count them as part of our official season. You can compare this whole process to how the CEV ranks countries and teams based on their performance in CEV club competitions for consideration toward bid distribution and seedings.

Of course, if your conference is a weak one in your Region and only has access to the automatic qualification bid, then rankings matter less. Your major focus must be on winning your conference bid (though rankings to factor in to seeding). You can perhaps use the non-conference matches for other purposes. It would be nice if every team was able to do that.

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