The game is evolving. What you know about volleyball now will be obsolete in two years. What you thought is the next big thing will soon be the norm.
Teams must change. Adapt. Evolve.
“I don’t think people realize how much the game has grown,” Phoenix Xavier Prep coach Tim McHale said. “The dream that I saw of how I wanted my team to play volleyball, everybody is playing that now.
If you watch how Arizona prep volleyball is played now, then look back at how it was played a few years ago, it’s like watching the game in slow motion. The current pace of the game is quicker. And offenses now are more complex.
Once upon a time, the high set and the big hitter ruled the land. Then came the era of the quick set to the middle hitter. But defensive systems became smarter and the players more athletic. Swing blocking, a jumping technique used to square higher over the net and at first used only in the men’s game, has become standard. And the libero position, a specialized defensive player in the back row, was introduced to the prep game and made it even harder for offenses to score.
So offenses needed to play faster, hit the ball before the opposing blockers and back row can set up. Be where they’re not.
“Even though there are some teams that still set the ball high, the belief is that quicker is better,” Chandler Hamilton coach Sharon Vanis said. “Our girls are just becoming so much more athletic. It’s almost kind of scary.”
McHale said you also need players with a high volleyball IQ.
“If they’re seeing the game a at a particular level, you can push them,” he said. “You can push them beyond their normal comfort level. And they’re able to get better. The more you push, the more the game evolves.”
The best team in the state right now is Phoenix Horizon, which can go from 6-foot to 6-foot-4 across the net. And not only are they tall, they’re talented and can also run a fast offense.
So what do other teams do? They try to play even faster.
Teams like Phoenix Pinnacle, Xavier and Gilbert have been lauded for their quick, complex offensive systems. Then there is Hamilton, which can accelerate its offense despite its firepower coming from their outside hitters. Hamilton has lost just twice this season — both to Horizon in regular season tournaments.
But most coaches agree that no team right now can match the offensive velocity of Glendale Mountain Ridge.
“Right now, it’s a lot of fun watching that Mountain Ridge team,” McHale said. “They just come at you at every possible angle.”
Said Vanis: “The tempo, the pace is so fast and so quick. Even we feel like we are pretty fast but I was really impressed with Mountain Ridge. If I’m a Mountain Ridge team playing against Horizon, if I don’t run that quick offense, I don’t stand a chance.”
Mountain Ridge actually took a full-strength Horizon to the brink in the Phoenix Goldwater tournament title match last week, beating Horizon in the first game before losing the match after a 15-13 Horizon advantage in the third and deciding game.
Mountain Ridge coach Jen McGauley decided to push her team’s offensive tempo after watching a college volleyball match two weeks ago.
“I felt like my team could maybe beat those (college) teams but I wondered why they seemed more intense,” McGauley said. “It was because their passes were faster and their sets were faster. So we just started a week and a half ago to implement that speed.”
Said Mountain Ridge senior libero Mary Claire Tuohy, “We’re a smaller team so we really use our athleticism and our speed to go up against larger teams. It was a gradual process but we’ve started to pick it up, keeping that pace is working out well for us.”
Horizon coach Valorie McKenzie is a believer.
“That’s the quickest offense Arizona has,” she said. “They (Mountain Ridge) have a good middle and two outsides. So they got more weapons. They run a really quick offense, so our block was a little delayed. So we have to speed up our block. It definitely pushed us.
“It’s a whole different style of play.”