Defense wins championships.
This old cliché adage that stresses the importance of playing defense seems to be proclaimed any time that a team, regardless of sport, wins a championship as a result of stellar defensive play.
And for the CSU volleyball team to end up where they want to be at seasons’ end, atop the Mountain West conference and safely in the NCAA tournament, a complete defensive effort will be needed.
The Rams, who have rattled off three consecutive wins to begin Mountain West play, sport a pretty stout blocking unit. Middle blocker Alexandra Poletto is leading the conference at 1.51 blocks per set. Teammate Kirstie Hiller, who spells Poletto in the middle at times,is right behind her with an average of 1.49 blocks per set, second in the MW. But head coach Tom Hilbert knows they can be better, and have been. Opponents are hitting .194 against the Rams this season. According to Hilbert, that figure has been typically down below the .150 mark in the past.
“Our blocking is good but it has been better,” he said. “Too many people are hitting through us and that hasn’t happened in the past few years. We’re giving up a high hitting percentage comparatively.”
But there is a lot more that goes into putting together a superb defensive effort behind just the block. As entertaining as it would be for the spectators, not every attack will result in a stuff. It’ll get tipped and need to be controlled by the back row. This is another area Hilbert is looking for to improve.
“There’s so much involved in that, “Hilbert said. “You have to block but it’s not just stuff blocks. Your block does a lot more than that. It deflects balls that you can dig and you have to control the balls that come off the block and we don’t always do that. We have great effort on defense but it’s really control that we need.”
The backrow is anchored by senior libero Cassidy Denny, who is averaging 4.15 digs per set thus far, ranking fifth highest in the MW. Alongside her have been a lot of new faces. Junior McKenna Thornlow, a transfer from North Texas, is digging at 1.43 digs a set and has been improving in the new system, Hilbert said. The rest of the back line is filled out predominantly by three true freshman, Amanda Young, Katie Oleksak, and Olivia Nicholson. Oleskak and Nicholson are both averaging over two digs a set.
For a group with all sorts of brand-new faces, they have performed well, but the lock-down and dominant defense that can stifle any teams’ attack is still a work in progress.
“I’d give them a B right now, “Hilbert said. “In order to get an A we need to be known as a team that you can’t kill balls on and I don’t think we’re known that way.”
At times though, when the Rams are blocking is firing on all cylinders, other teams adjust and work around it. They tip it over the top and put pressure on the backrow to be aggressive and come up to make plays on the ball.
“That’s when we have to have the mentality of everybody needs to go for the ball,” Denny said. “Our block is doing their job and that’s why they’re tipping. Those should be easy balls to dig and convert. The fact that we weren’t doing that in the beginning was frustrating…Just getting the freshman to realize the reason they’re tipping is because we’re blocking correctly and so we should see that, read that, and pick up on it.”
A major key to playing effective defense is being able to read what the other team is doing attack-wise and that’s something the Rams are aiming to improve at. But at the same time, sometimes overthinking a certain play or situation, instead of just reacting to it can be a hindrance as well.
“Sometimes in reading the game you can try to overanalyze it,” assistant coach Emily Hiza, who works primarily with the defense said. “We have a really smart team and sometimes that can be worse than just trusting your athleticism and going after it.”
Being able to read what the other team is doing on their attack, reacting and being aggressive in attacking short balls are things that develop over time, as a result of seeing it on the court. It may not happen tomorrow, or even next week, but eventually the Rams are hoping to string together complete defensive performances.
“I think we’re definitely going to get it.” Denny said. “I don’t know if it’ll happen as soon as Tom and Emily would like, but I think it’s going to click. It’s already starting to work. Around our block we’re digging the hard balls that we were missing before and now just need to work on the off-speed shots that are happening because of our block and we’ll be good.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Michael Roley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michael_roley