October 21, 2008

Volleyball’s Offense, by the Numbers

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Hitting percentage, like so many other numbers in sports, can be a misleading statistic. It’s calculated by subtracting a player’s errors from her kills, then dividing by the total number of attempts. It emphasizes a player’s efficiency — how often she converts a set into a kill — over her total productivity.
For example, junior middle blocker Juliana Rogers sports a hitting percentage of .150, below the team average of .181, but leads the squad in kills with 161 and has been a driving force of the offense so far this season. Similarly, freshman outside hitter Meagan Tatum is hitting .156 for the year but her 77 kills have come in spurts at crucial junctures. Sometimes, they propell the Red to victory, like during the team’s first win of the season — a tough 3-2 victory over Maine in which Tatum led the squad with 14 kills.[img_assist|nid=32826|title=Taking flight|desc=Junior middle blocker Juliana Rogers (center) leads the Red in kills this season, with 161 so far.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Senior middle blocker Emily Borman’s hitting percentage, however, is far from misleading. Borman is one of the team’s most effective offensive weapons — she leads the Red with a .368 average and is second on the team with 159 kills while her .338 percentage in Ivy League matches is ranked No. 4 in the Ancient Eight. This combination of efficiency and productivity makes her one of the team’s most valuable players. But it’s not a solo effort — senior captain and setter Hilary Holland plays a key role in Borman’s success.
“It’s a mixture of communication with the setter, being on time for the hit that you choose and also seeing the court and the blockers,” Borman said, of the recipe for successful hitting at the net.
In the span of the few seconds following a block or a dig, Borman and the other hitters all decide how to approach the attempt then call for a particular set from Holland. A “one” is a short set right in front of the net, a “slide” takes a higher set and a layup approach from the hitter and a “three” is a low, fast set pushed along the net towards the sidelines, according to Borman.
With each hitter calling for a different set in a different spot, the pressure is then on Holland to decide which option offers the best chance for a kill.
“As a setter I’m really trying to isolate my hitters, trying to get one or no blockers on them,” Holland said. “I’m looking at the blockers on the other side and … I’m trying to set away from wherever they’re going. Also I think about who’s been hitting well, who should be open, things like that.”
With so much happening in a short time, communication is crucial to the entire process, and good communication only comes with practice and familiarity with the rest of the team.
“It’s hard to work with a setter you’ve never played with before because everyone plays a little differently so you kind of need to get used to it,” Borman said. “I don’t know if I’d call it chemistry… Just knowing how each other works.”
The Borman-Holland duo has been plaguing opposing blockers for six years, dating back to their days as 11th graders on the Club Pacific volleyball team in Stockton, Calif. Head coach Deitre Collins-Parker first saw the pair at the Junior Olympics. She recruited both for Cornell as part of her first real recruiting class after being hired as head coach — and then she unleashed them on the Ancient Eight.
“For me, confidence in each one of my hitters is very important because when we need that kill, I need to be confident that we can get it,” Holland said. “In Emily’s case, I am very confident in her and I know that if we need a kill she can get it.”
In this case, the numbers seem to back that confidence up.