“I learned a lot from you this week. We worked really well together because you use statistics and I coach with my gut. I hope we can do this again some time.” – Michael Miller
This was some flattering words from my fellow Victorian U19 men’s team assistant coach as we said our goodbyes at the end of an emotional week at Australian Junior Volleyball Championships. We had both been called in to assist due to the original coaches being called up to coach the Australian Junior Women’s team at the Asian Junior Championships. I would be joining them later and was allowed to stay back till the end of AJVC.
Only a few hours before we had “technically” beaten QLD Maroon for the first time in the state careers of most of the players – a QLD team who had left some emotional scars 2 years ago in an ugly incident that was never truly resolved. The win earned us the Bronze medal. We had actually beaten them 2 days earlier, in 4 sets after siding out on 4 set points to win 28-26 in the last set. We had shaken hands and signed off the score sheet and thought we had conquered some old demons when the QLD coach protested. He had suspected they were out of rotation in the 4th set and had asked several times for the next server but was dismissed by the scorer’s desk.
Turned out the scorers had not entered in the rotation slip correctly. The referee delegate was called who upheld the request. It was determined that the 4th set and game was invalid and we had to replay the 4th set from 5-7. As the referee delegate had “upheld the protest” our head coach and head of delegation were not allowed to appeal. We lost the 4th and 5th sets and in doing so the game. To rub salt in the wound, our opposite hitter, Phil, who had lead our scoring with an average 20 kills a game had his left thumb dislocated blocking in the 4th set.
Our head of delegation appealed later that night and the referee delegate realised he got it wrong. The win was overruled the next day and we awarded the win 25-7 in the 4th set. QLD appealed against the decision and it was decided that the clause in the rules dictated that once a protest was “upheld” no appeal could be made. Everyone knew we had won the game but could not do anything about it. I have never been so disgusted with refereeing in my life.
So it turned out we had to play the same team again for the bronze medal and no one was feeling too good about it. We prepared for the game as clinically as we could by reviewing the statistics and video.
Our team was “small” but had a number of strong receivers (we had 3 Liberos in our roster of 10). QLD had exploited our weak blocking particularly over our short setter, Dan, and one of our outside hitters, Richo. This had been a persistent concern over the months of preparation. Reviewing the video and stats on vbstatshd it turned out that the setter had not been that poorly exploited in the front court as much as we thought. The handful of occasions were annoying but not great in number.
Our stronger blocking outside hitter and captain, Darcy usually started next to the setter and I suggested the radical idea of having him start next to the opposite, and Richo next to the setter. Although not a great blocker or receiver, Richo attacked the ball high and had possibly the fastest armswing in the competition. He had terrorised QLD in our last game hitting 7 kills from 9 attempts in the replayed sets. Andre, one of our spare hitters who had been doing a good job moonlighting as an outside hitter would sub on for Richo in the back court. Instead of spreading our strongest blockers around the rotation, they would all be next to each other and give us 2 formidable blocking rotation but expose us to 2 extremely vulnerable ones.
The risk of putting the 2 weaker blockers next to each other would be mitigated by starting them both in the backcourt to limit their time in the frontcourt and the fact we knew that we had strong side out percentages in those rotations, meaning we should break even in those rotations and pile on the points in the others.
The head coach, Linford also decided that in the frontcourt setter rotations, Dan would occasionally swap into the middle and have the middle blocker blocking outside. This had worked in the previous match against QLD prompting them to change their offence and use the pipe over Dan in the middle. Our other assistant Michael had a good feel for when to do this and would be calling the plays. When blocking on the outside, Dan would block to the stick to remove the the blocker’s option of playing off the outside hand, and maybe bait the spiker into hitting the antenna. the position 6 defender would also swing to the line side behind the block.
We didn’t worry too much about creating blocking match-ups or particular serving targets. We were not a strong blocking team and needed our best blockers focused on scoring through attack and Linford found it worked better to let players take a bit of risk with the serve.
By morning of the match, Andre had a fever and could not play, Richo had a sore foot and Phil’s dislocated thumb was still hurting after being re-set. Harry, our 2nd backup libero would play the backcourt rotations for Richo instead of Andre. We let Phil make the call whether he would play with the proviso that if he did, he would be playing 100% and to expect 40+ sets.
The set started slowly with the team tentative. We would need a big game from our opposite Phil, but he had scored 2 from 10 sets with no errors, missing a lot of the pace that made him a problem for opponents. Darcy and Richo had embraced the occasion and were carrying the attack, scoring 9 from 18. Darcy’s job was made the more difficult as the serving target but he responded well passing 15 balls at 2.20. His strong reception and scoring definitely undermined our opponent’s confidence in their gameplan,
During the timeouts and breaks I constantly stressed to Phil and Richo to keep swinging, and that we would rather they got blocked 20 times than get dug 20 times. I instructed Dan to keep setting them with the ratios we had been working with throughout the tournament. By the 2nd set, Phil’s Nurofen had kicked in and Dan feeding him the ball had paid off. Phil would hit 19 kills off 35 sets with 6 errors over the next 3 sets. Dan’s distribution to Phil was equal in backcourt and frontcourt and Phil’s efficiency was consistent in frontcourt and backcourt.
Meanwhile Matt was doing a great job as Libero. He received 18 balls at 2.28 and got 17 digs. More importantly, he organised the receivers to pass at 2.09 in a 2-receiver system, which made it harder for QLD to server Darcy and allowed us to play Richo without exposing the risks to reception.
By the 3rd set I had noticed that QLD was hitting a lot of slower balls. If we could get them to pass at 2.0, we could generally make a dig. I stressed the team to go moderate risk on the serve but stay high risk on the attack.
In addition to calling the blocking plays, Michael was also calling the subs to find opportunities when someone could add value from the bench. We often argued over the subs, but his instinct often prevailed and we got great outcomes. Michael also identified the serving targets.
So did it work? Well, we did win the next 3 sets after dropping the first. Teams in the tournament needed to average hitting 14 kills to win a set and we had scored 18, 17 and 16 in those sets.
Watching the video, in the 4 rotations with the weaker blockers (setter in 1, 2, 3 and 4), QLD scored 17 kills by exploiting one of the blockers. But we managed to sideout 32 times (24 times on the first ball), so we didn’t stay there long and more or less broke even (55 points won, 53 points lost). In the strong blocking rotations (setter in 5 and 6), we did rack up the points (41 points won, 25 points lost).
This was only possible because of the contributions of our unique team: Matt able to run a 2-receiver system and take most of the court so we could put more attacking players on court; Our Middle Blocker Sam Nothnagel scoring 8 from 12 with 1 error – playing next to the setter, he allowed us to sideout in the frontcourt rotations, and being our best server on our team, he burned up most of QLD’s timeouts; Our outside hitters Darcy and Richo attacking out of their skins for a combined 28 kills from 49 balls; Our middle blockers James and Zach sharing the other slot to keep the blockers honest on block, score points and make blocks; Our opposite hitter Phil playing with a dislocated left thumb to kill 50% of the balls he got whether in frontcourt or backcourt at the same volume to win a deserving all-star selection; our backup liberos Harry and Andre playing utility roles as passer hitters with overqualified receiving abilities and a penchant to score points at the right time; and our setter Dan, who although having never played for the first team, more than any other setter I worked with was able to deliver the offensive concept planned in each game he played, and to set the right guy a well set ball when it mattered.
Had we won the first game against QLD we could have made the Gold medal match, although i’m skeptical SA would have dropped the game we needed them to against VIC white on the last day if they knew they weren’t a game clear. After winning the Bronze, the sting from the game earlier in the week had gone. It was a good way to finish the tournament!
** All statistics, videos and charts generated using VBstatsHD, an app that costs $30 on iTunes.