Not all those attending this weekend’s NCAA Tournament volleyball matches at Allen Fieldhouse will be experts in the sport.
With that in mind, Free State High School volleyball coach Nancy Hopkins sat down to discuss a few things that novice volleyball fans can watch for to get the most out of their viewing experience.
The dance of the libero
Hopkins says knowing the libero’s purpose will go a long way toward helping understand today’s game.
Let’s start with this: The libero is easily spotted, as she will be wearing a different-colored uniform from the rest of her team.
The libero is unique from the rest of her teammates in that a coach can substitute her into and out of the game an unlimited number of times (though a libero can only play on the back row).
For other substitutions not involving a libero, a player can only sub in for one teammate. And if that teammate returns to the match, she can only sub back in for the one that replaced her.
So what is the libero’s purpose? Hopkins says it’s for defense, as typically, a libero is a shorter person who can cover a lot of ground.
When the opponent is serving, many teams check in the libero for one of their tall middle hitters.
The reasoning is simple: the libero is quicker and can get to balls on the back row compared to taller players, who are slower and might have troubles getting low to pass the ball.
The battle at the net
Especially at the collegiate level, volleyball players are becoming increasingly taller and stronger.
Because of this, Hopkins says blocking has become a bigger part of the game than it used to be.
Hopkins says if a team has good blockers, it can score a lot of points by rejecting an opponent’s attacks.
But even without stuffing an opponent, blocking is still important, as a team getting a deflection is able to slow down the ball’s speed.
Doing that allows the defense to get a better read on where the ball is going and gives players more time to react.
Hopkins tells her players to try to touch every ball, which also prevents hard spikes coming straight down at them.
The coach also says good blocks can wear on an opponent emotionally.
“If you get those big blockers, they’re very intimidating,” Hopkins said. “They can change the way a girl’s hitting. If they’ve got somebody that’s just cranking on the ball, and you’ve got a blocker that stuffs her a couple times, that hitter will change what they’re doing, and it can affect the whole game.”
Because of that, Hopkins says many matches are won and lost at the net.
Quarterback of the court
Hopkins describes the setter as a team’s “little general” on the court.
“Your setter is running the whole show,” Hopkins said.
There’s not much a coach can do during the match on the sideline, leaving the setter in charge of most of what goes on during play.
That means, in terms of organizing a team and making decisions, the setter has many of the same roles a quarterback does in football.
Before a serve, you might see a setter signal a number with her fingers. This oftentimes lets players on the front row know what kind of set they will be receiving from her if she tosses it their way.
And no, there’s not just one type of set. For example, some are “quick” sets, which set up attacks that are hit almost immediately after they leave the setter’s hands. There are also “slide” sets, where the setter positions the ball to the outside so a hitter can attack off one foot, like approaching a layup in basketball.
With a good pass, the setter has three main options to go with the ball: to either of the two outside hitters or to the middle hitter.
So how does she decide?
Hopkins says some setters just have a feel for it, looking with their peripheral vision across the net to see where the opposing team’s middle blocked.
The setter also has to remember the correct set to give each player, as some players will be better with certain sets than others.
If that’s not enough, sometimes hitters yell out code words to the setter to tell them what kind of set they want. With up to three teammates yelling at her, the setter decides who she’s going to and also deciphers the set that particular person wants before delivering it.
“It’s not backyard volleyball. It’s very complicated,” Hopkins said. “You get a team that’s really good — they’re smart. Smart players are the best players, because they understand the game. It’s not easy.”
Because so much is going on, Hopkins says communication is vitally important.
“Volleyball, in my opinion, is the ultimate team game,” Hopkins said, “because if you have six individuals that are all really good, but they don’t play very well together, you’re not going to be very good. But if you’ve got six mediocre players but they play really well together, they’re going to beat a lot of those stud teams, just because they’re all on the same page.”