SEATTLE – Is it a middle? Is it an outside? No, it’s just a Husky hitter. Washington volleyball’s willingness to move its pieces around the court this year, and the ability of setters Jenni Nogueras and Katy Beals to keep the defense guessing, has been critical to the team’s 16-1 start. One play that has seen greater use, and great success, this season is what’s known as a combo, where the Huskies use a little misdirection to find a favorable matchup.
With three hitters always in the front row, the Huskies have a lot of options to work with, but even so they do not want to get locked in to predictable patterns of throwing sets to the same players in the same spots. The combo set calls for one of the outside hitters to change their approach and run to the middle of the net, while the middle blocker typically can clear space and try to lure opposing blockers by acting as if she will hit a “slide,” a common play where the setter passes the ball to the right edge and the middle chases it down for a spike.
If all goes according to plan, the outside hitter will have a weaker block in front of her and a big wide court to hit into. Nogueras and Krista Vansant talked about the benefits of the play after practice this week.
“What we’re trying to do as setters is get our hitters in different positions on the court, and on that one it allows us to get our outsides in the middle of the court, hitting in an area that provides a lot of efficiency,” says Nogueras.
Just how much efficiency is a number that won’t show up in the box scores, but the coaches are able to keep careful track.
“In the Arizona State game, in rotation one, I think our efficiency was .700, so that’s really good,” says Nogueras. “I didn’t just run the combo, but it provides a lot of options and it’s really hard to defend against.”
In recent seasons, the outside hitter striking from the middle of the court is a play that the Huskies would run often out of a timeout, but this season the attempts have become more consistent.
“Credit goes to (assistant coach) Keegan, because he talked to the setters and said our hitters are just hitters, they’re not middle hitters or outside hitters or opposites, they’re hitters, and we can play around with where we want them to hit from,” Nogueras said.
Vansant, averaging nearly four kills a set this season, thoroughly enjoys hitting from the different vantage point.
“I feel like it’s working pretty well for the most part,” she says. “Sometimes I will just have one blocker on me and that’s a lot better than having them stacked up against me on the left or the right, so it just gives me more court and more places to hit.”
Still, despite the effectiveness of the play, the Huskies still need to choose their spots wisely to maintain that efficiency. Matchups are a big factor in when the coaches and setters look to run the combo. A lot depends on whether the opposing team’s outside hitters or middle blockers are tougher to hit against. Tougher middle blockers might mean the Huskies choose to set more to the edges.
Also, on-point passing is a big key, as it always is to the offense, since any time a setter has to drift away from the center of the court, her choices become restricted. The Huskies have not run the play as often in their past two wins over Stanford and UCLA, but used it effectively against California last week.
“There are situations,” says Nogueras, “for example in the Cal game we knew they had really strong blockers on the outsides so we knew that we needed to work them a little bit, have them play cat and mouse a little bit, so they have to stay inside.”
Nogueras also sees an advantage in terms of preparation for the Huskies.
“It’s interesting because it’s a play that’s not run as often, so many teams are not going to practice defending against it on a daily basis,” she says. “So they have to really watch film and practice something that they don’t do often or not for a long time. It’s hard to defend when you don’t go up against it every day in practice I think.”
Vansant, with a typical attacker’s mentality, has no qualms about running the play as much as possible until the opponent proves it can stop it.
“I just feel like we should keep running it until a team can stop it, and then we can go back to the other way and they have to learn to stop that, so we have these two options and they don’t know what we will do,” Vansant says. “It’s just something else for the blocker to have to worry about. Movement attracts attention.”
Ultimately, anything that helps lead to a kill is easy to get behind. “It’s fun to set,” says Nogueras, “and it’s fun to see Krista be successful in it.”
With a mischievous smile, Vansant simply says, “It’s fun to hit.”