Monday, December 5, 2011

When it all comes together

I didn't plan on becoming (primarily) a volleyball coach. I didn't play indoor volleyball at all after 9th grade, and my personal experience was mostly limited to a couple of beach volleyball camps in southern California and Woodberry Forest's annual beach tournament. I had the good fortune to spend some time studying under Dr. Marv Dunphy at Pepperdine, who I feel is not just one of the best volleyball coaches out there, but one of the best coaches (not to mention a fantastic person) in all of American sports. But even when I was learning from him, coaching basketball was the plan all along. But the first opportunity to really establish myself as a head coach came in volleyball.

The 2010 NCS varsity volleyball team was certainly not perfect, and against its competition probably could best be described as "pretty good" with an 18-10 record. We played three elite area teams that season, and two of them spanked us pretty thoroughly.* The next-best team we played swept us twice, both in our first tournament and on Senior Day. Although all sixteen girls on the roster knew what was expected of them and worked to achieve it (yes, all of them), it was a very top-heavy team, with the three best players accounting for about 75% of the offense and 70% of the defense. Only five of the girls had ever played club, and only two the previous winter/spring.

*Although the best of those teams, undefeated Virginia state champion Flint Hill, had to work a little to beat us.

The year before, with a team about half the size, we had played at the homecoming of the Maret School, just four blocks down the street from NCS, on a Friday night as part of the big kick-off for their homecoming festivities. It is a credit to their longtime coach and athletic director, Liz Hall, that Maret supporters pack the house for these matches. There was not enough bleacher space for everyone, and fans had to cram along the edge of the basketball court, as close as the referee would allow. Maret was additionally helped by the fact that their bleachers, rather than the traditional wooden or plastic risers that pull out from the wall, are made of poured concrete. Translation: the place was LOUD. We had expected this and prepared for it; for the two days of practice leading up to our date with Maret, I played music** on the sound system at extremely high volumes so that everyone needed to use their best outside voices to communicate (something at least a couple of them needed to get them to be louder on the floor). We had a team pre-game meal right after school, and went down there with every intention of spoiling their homecoming.

**I was playing (okay, blasting) some classic rock, and lots of merengue and uptempo old-school bossa nova. Not exactly anything that a bunch of 15-to-17-year-old girls would be familiar with.

We played an extraordinarily close match against the Frogs, but they wound up beating us in four (25-22, 24-26, 26-24, 25-23). And, of course, we lost our last point on a non-verbal miscommunication. But no matter. The experience of playing a comparably good team in front of a rowdy packed house was so much fun that I immediately began plotting a similar engagement the following year at NCS' homecoming. The school usually had all of their games/matches on Saturday, with two sports kicking off at 11:00 AM and the other two at 1:00 PM. This was all fine and dandy for soccer, field hockey, and tennis, but no one wants to spend a gorgeous October morning in an underground gym watching volleyball; while the crowds were indeed larger for homecoming, they were in no way electric. Also, in a bit of puzzling decision-making, the school had moved their homecoming dance to that Friday night before the games, and, well, you already know that teenagers aren't necessarily the best decision makers out there. I had noticed one or two players who were not quite at their peak level at our homecoming matches, which included an ugly four-set loss to Washington International just a couple of weeks before that Maret match.

Coach Hall readily agreed to return the favor for us in the fall of 2010, and the school graciously changed the schedule around to accommodate a 6:30 PM Friday first serve. The team, of course, had to play up the experience, which they did admirably. The gym was filled not only with parents and teachers and with colorfully dressed students still wound up from the earlier Spirit Day festivities, but with a brigade of boys from neighboring St. Alban's, who were invaluable in counterbalancing the Maret football team, which came en masse (along with many of their students). I had taken a page out of Big 12 basketball games and secretly ordered massive portraits of our six seniors for fans to wave around, although they did not receive as much use as I had hoped.

The place was rocking. We may have gotten a little too amped up, because our best player and leader promptly air-mailed the first serve of the match about five feet out of bounds. I think that error forced everyone to focus and not rely completely on adrenaline in front of 500 people. Despite being the better team (and playing at home), we dropped the first set 20-25. Maret has always been a very well-coached outfit, and even with only one elite player to our three they were able to push through for that critical first set.

If missing the first serve made the girls adjust their focus, losing the first set brought out all their best competitive traits. Our three star players decided that they just were not going to lose what promised to be the most entertaining match of their careers. And because the three of them were not only stellar players but great leaders as well,*** the rest of the team hopped on board. Our outside hitters, Izzi Eberstadt and Alex Packard, started getting lots of kills (and digs), our blockers made life difficult for Maret's hitters, and everyone started making their serves. It wasn't enough to blow Maret out of the water, who by this time were riding a little momentum-driven adrenaline of their own, but it was enough to beat them, 25-23.

***Not taking anything away from any other player that I have coached in my 11-year career (especially not her fantastic co-captains), but Izzi is the single best teammate that I have ever had as a player or a coach. I have yet to meet the person who doesn't love the way she approaches volleyball.

Try as we might, however, we couldn't shake them in the third set, an intense back-and-forth affair that ended with a 26-24 Maret win. And then came the other great response by the NCS team. After three sets with a lot of emotion, long rallies, and close scores, players on both sides were getting fatigued. There were fewer hard swings, fewer strong kills hitting the floor, and more hitting errors from both sides. I maintain that in volleyball, when the match drags on, the team that can block better at the net has a better shot at winning. This is because they can force more doubt in the other team's hitters, causing them to either mishit more balls for errors, or softer roll shots that are easy for the back row defense to pick up and turn into offensive opportunities. We had two things going for us going into the fourth set; fresh legs in the front row, and Izzi and Alex in the back row. I had four strong blockers to shuffle around three spots on the floor, and whoever was on the court was going to sit and rest for their back row rotations. In addition, our setter, Meredith Johnson (38 assists and 3 aces on the match), the other star captain and the best athlete on the floor, was both a good blocker and passer, allowing her to help both of those critical components. But even with all of these things going for us, the match turned into the Izzi show.

Since both teams were getting fatigued, kills were harder and harder to come by. Hitters on both sides resorted to passing perfectly good sets back over the net, just to keep the ball alive. Izzi was about the only person who was able to put the ball down with any authority, and even she spent much of the remainder of the match tipping to spots (after 16 kills through the first three sets, she ended the match with 20). But it was her defense that eroded and finally broke Maret's will in the fourth set, as she picked up seemingly every ball that the Frogs got over the net (she finished the match with a mind-boggling 39 digs). Their hitting got desperate and sloppy, and we tied it up with a 25-20 win.

The fifth set turned out to be a formality. We raced out to a seven-point lead, and Maret never got back to within two. After Meredith served three straight balls that never came back over the net (a block, an ace, and a hitting error in quick succession) to clinch the match with a 15-9 win, the students stormed the court. It was a fitting culmination to the most exciting game or match that I've ever been a part of.

I tell this story because it has an element of everything in it that, as a coach, you want your team to be prepared for and able to respond to. Pressure of a big, noisy crowd? Check. A tough opponent? Check. Early missteps that forced players to adjust? Check. Fight and determination to not let mistakes and/or good play by the other team compound into an avalanche that could overwhelm them early? Check. The focus to make the necessary plays and not always go for the big flashy play? Check. Coming back with their backs against the wall? Check. Breaking the other team's will and finishing them off in a convincing fashion? Check. There was really nothing more that the team could have done to show that they had absorbed all their lessons and prepared well for any contingency, and that (in addition to the big audience) is why it is still my favorite game or match that I've ever been a part of. See for yourselves below.