Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Pac 12 | Washington volleyball’s passers are no passing fancy

The biggest reason the Huskies are 19-1? It could be their serve receive
  • next: #3 Washington @ Arizona State | November 9 | 11AM | no TV

At almost any kids’ volleyball camp, it’s the first skill campers are taught. In many cases, it’s one of the campers’ least-favorite drills: how to properly pass a volleyball. As it turns out, it could be the most important lesson they learn.
Washington's Jenna Orlandini passes against Colorado as Krista Vansant looks on
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography

Washington’s glittering record through the first 20 matches of the 2013 season can be traced to many things: A veteran team maintaining focus under pressure. The strength and power of hitters like Krista Vansant and Kaleigh Nelson. The unexpected offense and athleticism from young middles Lianna Sybeldon and Melanie Wade. The consistency and decision-making of setters Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals. The outstanding serving by most of the team.

But through it all, the biggest factor may be the passing trio of Vansant, libero Jenna Orlandini and hitter Cassie Strickland.

In volleyball, the term “passing” usually refers to the skill used to redirect an opponent’s serve to one’s own setter. The better the pass, the more options are available to the setter, and the harder it is for an opposing defense to gang up on one hitter. (The term “dig” is used for defending an opponents’ attack, with same goal of getting the ball cleanly to the setter.)

Why is Washington’s passing the key? Let’s break it down:

On every team, the hitter designated as OH1 (Outside Hitter 1) carries an outsized share of the load. The OH1 never comes out of the match. She serves and she blocks. When a play breaks down, she’s the go-to for an out-of-system set. And—in most matches—she’s the primary target of the opposing servers, who hope that passing is the least of her skills, and that she can be worn out or put into a difficult approach position after handling a serve.

Jenna Orlandini, Cassie Strickland and Krista Vansant
-photo by Shutter Geeks Photography
Now in her third season, Vansant’s passing has improved dramatically. Like most young OH1s, she struggled with her late-game passing in her first couple of years. But coach Jim McLaughlin credits Vansant’s off-season work and her mental toughness for being willing to take the thousands of training repetitions necessary to improve her passing. She still suffers occasional concentration lapses, but her form is noticeably improved, including a straight platform running from her shoulders to her thumbs, plus the precise eyework necessary to see the serve coming early. Teams can no longer hope that serving only to Vansant will pull the Huskies out of system.

Most teams try not to serve to the libero, figuring that the best passer usually plays that position. But many servers aren’t that accurate, and Orlandini gets a big share of balls. Like Vansant, Orlandini has put endless hours into improving her passing, and she, too, has stepped up to a higher level. Opponents’ jump serves usually come her way, and she is rarely rattled.

More important, it’s Orlandini’s job to direct traffic—a responsibility requiring a loud voice and split-second decision-making. Who should take the ball? Is it in or out? Next time you’re at a match, notice how often Jo (as her teammates call her) makes the right decision on balls that are just barely out-of-bounds.

At 5-8, Strickland is one of the shortest outside hitters in Division 1. She earns her spot as a fearless attacker and a never-say-die blocker. But her biggest value may be her passing and defense.
In almost every sense, having Strickland in for six rotations is like having two liberos in the match. Her passing allows McLaughlin to run a 6-2 (two-setter) offense because he doesn’t have to substitute Strickland for a defensive specialist, a move that would quickly exhaust the maximum number of allowed substitutions (15) per set.

When great passers are paired with great servers, the result should be a noticeable difference in the distribution of sets between opposing teams. Washington’s setters often find hitters all along the net, and are able to run more plays where hitters are in motion (Vansant hitting from the middle, for example.) Washington’s exceptional serving this season has forced opposing setters to be more predictable, allowing Washington’s blockers and defenders to more frequently guess correctly about where sets are headed.

The takeaway lesson? Those volleyball camp passing drills may be the most important skills a camper learns.

Photos courtesy Shutter Geeks Photography


  1. Thanks for the great instructions about VB basics. I love the game, but wasn't schooled in it growing up as I was in other sports. Now, in my mid-60s, women's volleyball is at the top of my list. One other issue would be welcomed by me in explanation, and that is "in system" and "out of system." Thanks for your blog.

    1. Great question.
      We'll try to answer in greater detail in a future post. But the short answer is that each time a setter receives a perfect (or near-perfect) pass from her teammates, the team is "in-system," meaning the setter has the option to set any of her other teammates in almost any way she wishes (high, low, quick, slow, on the net, off the net, etc.)
      When, however, the setter has to scramble to get to the second ball (because of a less-than-good pass), the team is "out-of-system," and the setter has to resort to whatever works. The default out-of-system set is usually to the outside hitter on the left side.

    2. Thanks. That's not a totally intuitive idea, and so your explanation helps a lot. It seems to me that it's a different concept than in any other sport, something that really highlights the importance of coordinated team play and efficient reactions by all parties. Clearly, the more you stay in system, the more you control what you send the other team to deal with.

  2. I've noticed the Husky setters seldom set either back quicks (e.g., back slides) or quicks away from the setter. Many of the other teams in the Pac 12 effectively use these as part of their regular arsenal (e.g., Stanford, Washington St.). Any idea why they are used only occasionally, if ever? I'm certain that both Jenni and Katy have the ability and, at least one of the Huskie's middles has the speed to run the play.

    1. I believe Stanford and WSU use a 5-1 offensive. vs UW's 6-2. When the setter is front row in the 5-1,they need the slide play to keep the blockers honest. 6-2 offenses always have a right side hitter.


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