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Traveling Through the Night to a Dam

If I were going to paint an acrylic painting of Clark County, Nevada, I would begin with a wide swath of pastel colors at the top of the canvas that would represent the Las Vegas strip. This would cover the top fifth of the canvas. It would be airy and impermanent.

About one fifth of the way up from the bottom would be a small circle, no bigger than a silver dollar that would contain a white-diamond colored arch that would represent Hoover Dam, an engineering marvel, estimated to last more than 2,500 years.

* * *

In the summer of 1962, my grandmother and I traveled from my home in Northwest Indiana, to her home in Ventura, California. We did this in a Corvair Monza with a pitbull mix in the back seat named Jasper, who began throwing up in Joplin, Missouri.

Grandma Kay was a fiercely independent woman who chain smoked Camels, and was more comfortable playing craps in a casino than reading romance novels. (Her Christmas gifts were silver dollars that she won playing 21.) Her answer to Jasper’s condition was for us to alternate force feeding him Pepto Bismol every two hundred miles.

We could look forward to intermediate stops on the way. Grandma Kay’s sister, Aunt Mimi lived in Las Vegas in a house that was filled cardboard boxes from the floor to ceiling. There was a narrow tunnel that allowed one way traffic to a kitchen and two bedrooms.

Aunt Mimi had been a hoarder since her husband died. Van had been the manager of one of the first casinos in Las Vegas, a small ranch style building no bigger than a double wide trailer.

Most of our trip had been on Route 66 with diversions to Monument Valley in Arizona, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. From the Grand Canyon, we traveled through the night without seeing more than one or two cars and an occasional jackrabbit caught in the high beams of the headlights. The few cars we did see had gas cans strapped to the top.

Near midnight, we began our descent toward the Colorado river on the Arizona – Nevada border. While Boulder Dam had officially been renamed Hoover Dam in 1947, Grandma Kay continued to call it Boulder Dam, perhaps because Hoover was a republican and she was a democrat.

As we approached the dam, I was not prepared for what I saw; the dam face, the towers and two angels were lit up with floodlights. Because I wasn’t acquainted with art deco design at the time, the design reminded me of the space ships in the Flash Gordon serials I had watched as a kid on Sunday mornings.

I didn’t know anything about the dam. I wasn’t aware that it would have taken 150 years for the concrete to cure if it hadn’t been for the ingenious weaving of sixty miles of steel pipe into a honeycomb concrete boxes. I didn’t know that the powerlines leading from the dam were deliberately set a severe angle so that if the lines broke they would fall toward the river and not iron rich volcanic rock on the sides of the canyon. I didn’t know about the seventeen turbines beneath the dam floor that provided power to the southwestern United States, or the 200 men who lost their lives during the four years it took to build it.

What I knew was this. I had never seen anything like it. As a child living in Van Nuys, California, I had seen searchlights crisscrossing the Hollywood sky promoting movie debuts. But this light was much more acute. Years later it would remind me of the scenes in the James Dean’s movie, Rebel Without a Cause, that were shot at an art-deco mansion in Los Angeles and the Griffith Observatory.

But I didn’t have this context in 1962. I didn’t have any context for what I was looking at. I asked if we could drive across the dam again. And we did. And once again. I do not remember anything extraneous to the light. There wasn’t a parking garage. Or a gift shop. There wasn’t an interstate or arched bridge in the distance. There was just an intense white light that enveloped everything.

Sometimes you can experience something so fierce that it climbs into your blood where it lives for years. It can come in the form of a conversation, a letter, a melody, or an image so sharp and unworldly that it does not come into focus until it resurfaces decades later, at a different time and a different place.

-Terry Pettit terrypettit.com


How Good Is Kelly Hunter?

An editor at a sports publication asked me to share where I thought Kelly Hunter fit in among the great atheletes who have competed for Nebraska. This is my response:
Hello xxxxxxx,
I think exercises like this are somewhat foolish for several reasons. You can’t compare a setter with competitors in other sports or even other positions in volleyball. Who was the better baseball player, Bob Gibson or Ted Williams? It’s the type of question suitable for those kids walking along the railroad track in the movie Stand by Me.
Karen Dahlgren, Allison Weston, Greicha Cepero,  Sarah Pavan and Christina Houghtelling were National players of the Year and Jordan Larson was  as good or better than many of them. If there was a better middle blocker in 2000 than Amber Holmquist I didn’t see her. Justine Wong-Orantes was so good at the libero position in 2016 because she had the unique ability to be out of postion at the right time. (Read that sentence again until you understand it.)
 
I can only compare Kelly with other setters and that is a special group. Lori Endacott was named Best Setter in the World in the Barcelona Olympics but the two teams she was the starting setter for at Nebraska were not top five teams. Until another Husker setter is named Best in the World, Endacott is the best setter we have produced at Nebraska.
 
Christy Johnson was a first team All-American her junior and senior years and led her teams to a 63-2 record, never lost an away match, and was captain of Nebraska’s first national championship team. She also averaged close to 14 assists per set prior to rally score.
Cathy Noth Was MVP of the Big 8 Conference two times as a hitter and two times as a setter. She then went on to play with the US National Team as a setter. Fiona Nepo was a three time All-American and perhaps one the three most athletic setters for Nebraska Volleyball. Fiona set two Finals fours and played backrow defense in a third. Greichaly Cepero was National Player of the Year when she led Nebraska to a National Championship in 2000. I could go with others like Val Novak, Nikki Stricker, Tisha Delaney, Lauren Cook, and Rachael Holloway but here is the best thing that I can say. Each of these players, including Kelly, was the best person for their teams.
 
There is a saying in volleyball. “One average setter and five good hitters makes five average hitters. One great setter and five good hitters makes five great hitters.” 
 
If there was a National 5-1 Setter of the year award Endacott, Johnson, Novak, Nepo, Cepero, Holloway and Hunter would have had a good chance to win the award. Noth played in a 6-2 so she wouldn’t have been considered but she was certainly one of the best six rotation players her senior year.  
 
What I can comment on, is what Kelly Hunter does best. Her best attributes are her mindset and her decision making. Mindset is the ability to not pass judgment on the last behavior (set). Like all great setters she may occasionally underset a ball or make a decision that wasn’t the best, but she doesn’t let a less than great play impact the next play. She is passionate but not emotional. She is intentional in her decision making rather than reactionary. She also does the most important thing for any great setter, she sets hittable balls. I thought she was the best setter in 2017. 
 
So here is the truth. Kelly Hunter is an extraordinary competitor which puts her in an exclusive club of other great players for Nebraska Volleyball. Anyone who can rate those players from 1 thru 20, has either not been watching Nebraska Volleyball for the last 40 years or has better judgement that I do.   
 
Thank you, 
 
Terry Pettit
 

Nebraska and Penn State Meet for 30th Time in Another Big Match

The History: Nebraska is 19-10 against Penn State and has won the last six times the teams have met. Penn State and Stanford have each won seven national championships in women’s volleyball while the Huskers have won four. None of this will mean anything when the two teams meet at 6:00 pm in Kansas City later tonight. Why? Because they are rivals and have played many important matches, and because of the cultures that have been created by John Cook and Russ Rose, neither team will be looking beyond the next point.

Penn State Attack: The Lions offense is built around 6-1” senior outside hitter Simone Lee, who was the Big 10 Player of the Year and hit .321 with almost 4 kills per set, and 6’3” middle blocker Haleigh Washington who was the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference with 1.5 blocks per set and hit a sensational .521 with three kills per set. Both have the athleticism to make a good living playing professional volleyball should they choose to do so.

Penn State runs a 6-2 offense with 6’ senior setter Abby Deterding playing six rotations, and 6’ red-shirt junior Bryanna Weiskircher playing three back row rotations.  6-2 Senior Heidi Thelen subs in for Weiskircher in the front own and hits slides from the right side.  6’1” senior Ali Franti is a second team All American and is a solid six rotation player. The second middle 6’2” Tori Gorrel hit .447 with just over 1 kill and 1 block per set. The Lions hit .342 as a team with 3.08 blocks per set. Penn State also has Kendall White a sophomore second team All-American libero.

By now you may be asking how did the Huskers beat Penn State 3-0 in the first conference match of the year on September 22 in Rec Hall at Penn State? Some of Nebraska’s success may have to do with Penn State still trying to find out the best personnel for their lineup. They only began running a 6-2 in the Regional Final against Nebraska in the 2016 NCAA tournament and they weren’t as patterned as they are now. In that match Thelen played middle blocker and Nia Reed played front row for Abby Deterding. That required Penn State to sub two players every three rotations for both setters and right side players. Reed struggled in the match and Rose later moved Thelen to the right side, inserted Gorrel as middle blocker and kept Wiskircher in the lineup when she rotated to the front row. That resulted in a more efficient lineup (only 2 subs every six rotations) and Thelen proved to be a  stronger right side attacker on the right side than Reed.

Nebraska also played extremely well. Annika Albright, who recently earned second team All-American recognition, was transitioning from a defensive specialist role in 2016. Annika had 19 kills and hit .400 for the match. Briana Holman had 13 kills, one error and hit .750 for the match. The Huskers as a team hit .347 while Penn State hit 227. Penn State scored points on only 27% of their opportunities, a very low percentage for a team that averages closer to 50%. Much of that can be attributed to the Huskers passing and Kelly Hunter’s setting. (Kelly was named a first team All-American yesterday.) They played much of the match in-system while the Lions struggled to be in-system.

6-2 vs 5-1: National Championships and Olympic Gold medals have been won by teams running a 6-2 offense. The last time it was done in Women’s Division 1 volleyball was in 2003 by Mick Haley’s USC squad defeated Florida 3-1. Why is it not common?

Running a 6-2 system with two back row setters: Degree of difficulty 12 on a 10-point system: Why? The setter is always transition from the backrow, sometimes from almost the end line when an opponent is attacking from its own backrow, and it makes it more difficult for the setter to get to her base position at the net. You also have two different setters setting the middles and left side players who have to adjust to slightly different tempos and geometries. But here is the real challenge. It is hard enough to get one person who is quick enough to get to the ball, set a hittable ball, and have great judgment on which player to set in each situation. Finding two setters with similar tempo and jugdement is hard.

Teams that run a 6-2 do so often because of a weakness rather than a strength. If you don’t have at least one middle attacker who is an effective slide hitter than it is much easier for the opponent to cover both hitters when they are both attacking in front of the setter. Sometimes neither setter is capable of setting a big enough block to play the front row. With fifteen subs and a libero you have enough subs to rotate in hitters for the front row and still have a sub left for a golden retriever if you wanted.   Penn State led the conference in attack percentage so obviously their setters are not just good but very good and because Haleigh Washington is great off one foot behind the setter, they can switch easily to a 5-1 if needed.

Penn State and the 6-2: To my knowledge this may be the first full season Coach Rose has run a 6-2. It has obviously worked since the Lions earned the number one seed in the NCAA tournament. But this is one area that Nebraska has a potential advantage. There are only two setters that have won an NCAA championship that are playing college volleyball. Jenna Gray the sophomore setter at Stanford led her team to a championship last year, and Kelly Hunter led the Huskers to a championship in 2015. Both are the only setters on the 2017 All-American first team and they deserve to be there.

Kelly Hunter will be making decisions in every side-out rotation for the Huskers and then choosing who to set as the play evolves. Penn State will have two players making those decisions and they will be traveling from the back row in all six rotations.

When Wiskercher digs the ball at right back she can dig it to Deterding at right front who then can choose to attack it with her left hand, set the two other front row players or a “pipe” to Lee or Franti playing middle back.  Lee hits more down on the ball on the pipe from the back row than she does at left front. When Lee is in the front row she jumps high goes over the block and hits hard line or deep from middle back to left back. When she hits the “pipe” she tends to hit around the block snapping the ball down at the opponent’s setter or right back player.

When Deterding digs the ball at right back she has to dig the ball to a libero who will more than likely bump set the ball to left front or the 10’ line for Lee or Franti. Why not bump set right front? Because Thelen is more effective on the slide than making a regular approach on two feet. In many ways Penn State uses her as a set of choice in serve reception off a perfect pass or on a free ball. She needs to retreat toward the middle of the court to hit the slide and so she is not always an available option.

Think of the 6-2 as you would playing football with two quarterbacks. It gives you three hitters to side-out with, a bigger block because you are not playing a smaller front row setter and it can wear mentally on a team that does not serve tough enough to keep them out of system because the middle blockers are always responding to three front row attackers. But you are switching quarterbacks every series.

Deterding has a hitter’s mentality so she is going to take a swing on some of those balls that Wiskercher digs at right back and Foecke and Albright will have to be alert, over the net quicker than usual and the back row will have to be prepared as well. This has the potential to be an emotional play for both teams. It can elevate the Penn State offense to continue to make a run when it appeared the opponent has gained an advantage by attacking the setter, but it can also deflate the attacker when the ball is blocked straight down when she could have set the ball and some setters can carry disappointment with them for a couple of plays.

One of the best ways of attacking a 6-2 is with backrow attack after the ball has crossed the net a couple of times. Why? Because the longer the rally goes more back row players suck up toward the net as either set or cover attackers. Teams are fairly organized against back row attack in serve receive, much less so after the ball crosses the net a few times. Nebraska has two very good backrow attackers in Foecke and Albright. (So does Penn State with Lee and Franti.) Back row attack makes it easier to keep the ball away from the libero who is digging left back and who is usually the best floor defender on the team.

Slowing down Washington and Lee: If Washington and Lee are set hitable balls in-system they are going to score. It will be very difficult to stop them at the net. The key is to keep Penn State out of system as much as possible with tough serving, situational attacks from Hunter, attacking the backrow setter, situationally attacking from the backrow when the Penn State middle releases early to block Nebraska’s left side. Staying in-system yourself so that your attackers are splitting the Penn State block and hitting for a high percentage.

The  Head Coaches: John Cook and Russ Rose are two of the best in the business. Their demeanor during the match is somewhat similar. They both sit on the bench rather than stalk the sideline. Coach Rose records information in a notebook and Coach Cook evaluates the larger picture. Both teams are somewhat limited in their depth. Nebraska does not have an experienced pin hitter on the bench. Penn State has one, Nia Reed who started the season as a right-side attacker. Both will have access to Data Volley Stats as the match unfolds which will tell them more than they need to know about which rotations are successful and which hitters or rotations are struggling.

Matchups: Volleyball is really six separate games within a game. Matchups can play a critical role in whether or not a team is successful. In 1990 we played an exceptional Penn State team that had been destroying everyone it played and was undefeated through the regular season. This is before video exchange and it was much harder to prepare for a team that you didn’t see in the regular season. A school was not allowed to reimburse someone on the coaching staff to pay for a scouting trip. Still we felt it was necessary, so I personally paid to have John Cook travel to Texas and see a match. He came back with the rotations drawn out and a pretty somber message that he wasn’t sure how we could beat them. They had a great setter in Michelle Jaworski and unusual left handed middle attacker, JoAnn Ewell, who ran a one foot slide takeoff from the right side into the middle of the court.

Our own Karen Dahlgren was the first player to run the slide in 1986 and it allowed her to be the NCAA Player of the Year. Still it was unusual for a left-handed player to be playing middle attacker and the fact she was running the slide into the middle of the court made it even more unusual. We developed a game plan to try and make it difficult for Penn State to run the slide successfully in serve receive even though we didn’t know if it would work. I thought if we could serve the ball short into zone 2 so that Jaworski had to turn toward the sideline it might bottle up Ewell’s approach and make it difficult to connect with Ewell.

We had one exceptional short server, Nikki Stricker, a freshmen middle blocker who would go on to be our starting setter for the next three years. For our game plan to be effective Stricker had to be serving against Penn State’s fifth rotation. We were able to get that match up in all four sets. Penn State outscored us in four of the six rotations but we ran close to 40% or our points in that one rotation and won the match 3-1 to advance to the final four.

There are several things coaches consider in match-ups:

1. How important is to have my best right side blocker matched up against the opponent’s best left side attacker? Against Penn State that may not be a factor because Lee is capable of going over the top of the block whomever is blocking right side. It may be more important to have your best servers, serving when she is in the front row.

2. Which of my left side hitters can be effective against Penn State’s strongest right side blocker?

3. Who do I want digging middle back when Simone Lee is attacking from the backrow?

4. Who is my best left side blocker against Thelan running the slide?

5. What is my weakest rotation and what would be the best match up for it to be successful?

6. Is there a player on the opponent’s side that the head coach has the least confidence in and when would it be to our advantage to attack her and get her out of the match?

7. What server is going to be the most effective in keeping Washington from running the slide?

8. When Penn State calls a timeout in any give rotation what play are they likely to run in each rotation?

9. Who is there best server and what rotation do I not want to be in when she is serving?

Penn State will be asking these and similar questions as well based on data that is available on Volleymetrics that evaluates video from every team that subscribes to it. It doesn’t necessarily cut down the time a coaching staff spends on preparation but it allows a staff to go into more detail. Some teams use it extensively for each match and some teams only use it occasionally.

Even when you know the match-ups you would like to get because both coaches submit their lineups just before each set you are not likely to get exactly what you want. So to some degree the list above is a wish-list.  If you don’t get the best match up, your team has to know how to adjust and find a way to be successful with a situation that isn’t ideal. Cook and Rose are exceptional at preparation and neither coach is likely to have a significant advantage.  I am very impressed with Nebraska’s serve receive, setting and floor defense. I think Nebraska is as strong as anyone in those three areas which may even be more important than matchups.

Both teams have great chemistry with kids that you would like to coach. They are team oriented and not primarily concerned with their own needs. For Nebraska to be in this position every returning player needed to be better than they were last year. Mikaela Foecke has sped up her arm swing, become a solid six rotation player and is hitting the ball harder than ever. Annika Albright went from a very good defensive specialist to a six rotation outside hitter. Both Foecke and Albright earned second team All-American recognition this year.

Kenzie Maloney stepped into the libero position after being a very good defensive specialist for two years and she has gotten better throughout the season. Perhaps the player who has made the biggest improvement has gone unnoticed by people unfamiliar with Nebraska. Senior middle blocker Brian Holman has improved both her blocking and attack percentage significantly but perhaps more importantly has matured as a teammate and leader.

Red-shirt Freshman Lauren Stivrins has gone from watching the Huskers in a red-shirt season to starting at middle blocker opposite Holman. She has solidified a position that Nebraska needed to if it was going to advance to Final Four. Sydney Townsend has continued to develop in her role as a serving and defensive specialist. When she serves tough the Huskers have an added weapon. True freshman and right side player Jazz Sweet has done everything the coaching staff has asked of a freshman player. Courage is playing without thinking too much and letting your athletic talent take over. When she has done that this year she has had some big matches.

Senior setter Kelly Hunter is the glue. She was injured during the first third of the season and didn’t gain full strength until about a month ago. You can see the difference in serving, blocking and floor defense. A setters biggest challenge in the match of this importance is to be able to set courageously in end game. All setters set the middle early in a match but as the match moves toward a critical point, they tend to set the left side more and more. Why? Because even though middle attackers generally have a higher attack percentage when they do get blocked it happens very quick and setters can feel responsibility for that error. I don’t think either team can win by just throwing the ball to the left side when the match gets tight.

Kelly has great judgment and the fact that she can impact the match more any other player on the court is a big plus. She has all the stuff that the great setters at Nebraska have brought to the game. They can be fearless and still have fun.

Nebraska fans need to relax and enjoy the match. There is nothing better as a competitor than to play a great opponent. You can’t play your best unless you are playing someone capable of playing at their best on the same night. Winning or losing is important. But what allows for a memorable match is the tremendous competition between two great opponents. Adopt Hunter’s attitude, be fearless in your support but have fun enjoying two great teams in action. – Terry Pettit

I originally meant for this to be about 500 words but it turned out to well over 3,000 words. That’s what happens when I am passionate about what I am writing. I would like to ask you to return to the home page of my website and consider buying a book if you enjoyed this article. If you order a copy of Trust and the River or A Fresh Season or the DVD The Journey to Exceptional Coaching, I will  also email you a free copy of the eBook Talent and the Secret Life of Teams that you can keep for yourself or give to a friend.” This offer will be available for orders through December 31.

Good luck and Merry Christmas.

Terry GBR


Letter to the Parents of a Prospective Player

I would like to see college volleyball coaches educate the parents of their recruits with the following message:

“When your daughter comes to State University, I pledge that we will use all our resources to give her the opportunity to develop into an outstanding volleyball player, student, and citizen.

We will not physically or mentally abuse her. We will not run her off to another school when we have the opportunity to recruit someone with more talent. We will treat her the same way that we would like our own child to be treated, which means that there will be times when she will be challenged, encouraged and pushed to do things beyond what she believes she is capable. This is my commitment to you.

Here is the commitment I need from you, the parents: There will be times in your daughter’s collegiate career where she may be frustrated, anxious or angry for any of the following reasons. She may find the expectations more than she anticipated. She may be asked to play a role on the team that is not the one she dreamed of. She may not enjoy competing every day against other athletes as skilled and talented as she is.

She may not yet have an appreciation for delayed gratification. She may interpret information as judgment. She may long for something else that appears easier or more comfortable. She may be overwhelmed by a combination of these factors.

If she is, then she is having a normal college experience that is typical for someone who is moving through adolescence to adulthood. When this happens, there will come a moment when she calls (or texts) you and wants to do one of the following: leave school and come home, transfer to another school, or organize a plot to get me fired.

I need you to make a commitment that when your daughter calls you will listen, you will communicate your love for her, and then you will tell her to get back to the tough business of growing up and becoming accountable for the challenges that she is lucky enough to have before her. If you cannot make this commitment then you need to look at other schools. If you can, fasten your seatbelt and welcome aboard.” — Terry Pettit


The Man Behind the Website You Visit Twice a Day

It is Saturday morning in September. At a home on the East Coast, three homes in in the Midwest, and another on the West Coast, several volunteers are scanning college volleyball websites, live stats, game tracker, stat master, stat broadcast, conference websites, and the NCAA volleyball website, for college volleyball scores. The person coordinating this enterprise is Rich Kern, a former civil engineer and avid birder, who has been gathering and sharing collegiate volleyball scores since 1995.

Initially Rich Kern began reporting Nebraska volleyball scores on a Nebraska state website that included information that the University of Nebraska sports information office provided him. After two years, the sports information office developed websites for each of the sports at Nebraska and Kern managed the volleyball website for two more years before he started his own website richkern.com. In the last twenty years richkern.com has emerged the “unofficial record” of women’s collegiate volleyball competition in the United States.

You might think that after two decades of providing this service, that with the technological advances that have moved us from cell phones larger than a brick to the current hand held computers we all carry, the gathering of college volleyball scores would be fully automated. You would be wrong. It is labor intensive. Kern and his colleagues will not finish searching for scores until at least 2:00 am on Sunday morning.

There are over 1,300 NCAA and NAIA women’s volleyball teams playing at least one and probably two matches on a Saturday morning in the preconference season. Kern’s team makes an effort to report each score within a minute or two of the end of the match. This means that on Saturday afternoon each of them may be tracking as many as a couple dozen matches at any given time on several different screens. When Rich described this process to me, the image that came to mind was that of an air traffic controller trying to watch a combination of passenger jets, FedEx, UPS and private planes circling an airport waiting to land, except that some of them never land.

If team members can’t find a score on the NCAA website, they search conference and school websites where they may or may not find the score. (Interestingly, there are a couple of prominent NCAA division 1 schools that are slow to post results on their volleyball website if their school loses.) Sometimes schools may not post the score until the next day and some Division III schools may not post their scores until Monday morning.

Two or three days before the fall season begins, Kern loads collegiate volleyball schedules compiled from the NCAA website into a data base so that he and his colleagues know what time a match begins and when it is likely to end. But if a college is playing a nonconference opponent with a common name, like St. Mary’s, and the location is not identified (St. Mary’s – Kansas) he may have to check out several websites before he can be sure which St. Mary’s is on the schedule.

To make things even more complicated, some of the people compiling scores have a home team they want to watch so they leave their computers while other people take up the slack. It is controlled chaos until the conference seasons begin in the third week of September when it becomes obvious who the St. Mary’s team is and teams aren’t playing two matches on one day.

The website also has some valuable and some quirky information on the won loss percentage of coaches at each institution and the average height of each roster. I would personally find it interesting if it listed which players on every roster had helicopter parents and which ones had fighter pilot parents. (A division I coach explained to me that fighter pilot parents don’t just hover over their child; they are willing to go to court if their child is uncomfortable.)

The other section of the website that many coaches frequent on richkern.com are the RKPI and Pablo rankings for Division I teams. RKPI is Kern’s effort to replicate the RPI (ratings percentage index) that the NCAA committee has used in all sports to determine at large bids and seeding for the NCAA tournament. When Kern developed the RKPI formula the NCAA did not release the rankings until the season was over. That has changed and the first RPI rankings are now published after there has been enough competition for them to make sense.

The RPI ranking system is based 25% on wins, 50% on your opponent wins, and 25% on your opponent’s opponent’s wins. It does not value whether or not you played at home or on the road or how much your team won or lost by.

Where a game is played is taken into account on the NCAA basketball RPI but not in volleyball which is unfortunate. Men’s basketball teams are flying to competitions, frequently on charter aircraft. Some women’s volleyball teams are still vanning to road matches which is much more fatiguing. When I asked Kern why he thought the NCAA did not factor in the value of winning on the road in women’s volleyball, he didn’t hesitate with his response: “It would take more time and money to do so, and the NCAA cares less about women’s volleyball than basketball.”

There is also the feeling that the RPI system can be gamed by playing teams that are going to have a positive win loss record but are from weaker conferences. Because there are more conferences on the East Coast than the West Coast, it is easier for teams in power conferences like the ACC and the SEC to schedule teams that fit this description. RPI doesn’t look at whether a team won 3-0 or 3-2 only whether or not you won or lost.

The Pablo ranking system was developed by a current university professor who wanted to overcome some deficiencies he saw in the RPI system. Pablo is points based. It doesn’t factor in sets won or lost but the total number of point differentiation in a match. Because of that it values a decisive victory more than it does a victory where there is very little difference in the total points scored. Pablo is also more predictive than RPI and in recent years the NCAA volleyball committee has used it as one of the tools beyond RPI to determine at large and seeding. Pablo does factor in whether the match was played at home, on the road, or at a neutral site. The majority of Division 1 coaches that I have talked with believe it is a much more accurate ranking system than RPI.

For several years richkern.com has been a subscription website. Coaches encouraged him to make it a subscription site because they recognized its value and they were afraid if Kern couldn’t cover the costs associated with the site it might disappear. There is a high percentage of Division I and II subscribers with fewer NAIA and Division III subscribers.

Rich Kern and his wife Jeanne are avid bird watchers. They have been to the Arctic Circle, India, Norway, Costa Rica and many other remote places looking to identify rare and not so rare birds that you and I are not likely to see. But none of those adventures can take place from August to December when Rich is in his basement tracking 30 matches on the internet, with ears cocked like a telegrapher in an old Western movie, trying to report what the volleyball world is telling him. He is doing it not because it is a profitable business model, but because he and his team see themselves as servants to the growth of the game.

–Terry Pettit


My Take on Nebraska Football — Terry Pettit

         Nebraska has fired the Athletic Director twice at mid-season in the past decade, and in both cases the football teams’ performance only got worse during the second half of the season.

There might have been more integrity in firing the head football coach, which would have given those teams the opportunity to prove the administration was wrong. It surely would have been fairer to the head football coaches, who were left playing a game of chutes and ladders with only one dice. But it is more complicated than that.

In 2007 the morale was so low in the UNL athletic department it had to be done. Coaches throughout the department were on the verge of leaving because of autocratic leadership that appeared to be soulless.

2017 is different. The current football staff seems to have lost the team in the last two weeks. Despite that observation, the current staff also appears to have attracted a number of high level recruits who might  chang their minds if Riley is fired prior to the December 20 signing date. The administration didn’t trust the former A.D. to hire the right person because he didn’t get it right the first time. But if they got another A.D. in place who could hire the right coach, they could fire Riley at the end of the season or at least after December 20. This is the contemporary version of having your cake and eating it to. If Nebraska’s slide continues, the new Athletic Director, Bill Moos, may be forced to fire Riley before the early singing date.

It takes a lot of hard work, talent and luck to get to the place that Nebraska football was at in the mid-90s. It also takes a lot of questionable decisions, administrative indifference, and a lack of collaboration by a lot of people for Nebraska football to get to where it is today. But if anyone has a right to be angry it should be the players who have not been put in a position to reach their potential as a team for almost twenty years.

One former head coach had never been a collegiate head coach or coordinator.

(Please do not use Tom Osborne as an example of someone who did not have head coaching experience but had great success. Tom Osborne was the defacto head coach of Nebraska football during the Devaney’s championship seasons.)

One had not had success in the college game. One led with his amygdala, and one was a good man who lacked the edge to create the toughness it takes to build a championship team in this environment.

When I was hired at Nebraska in 1977, Coach Osborne’s base salary was about $40,000. Mine was $12,000, so you could say I was overpaid. I don’t like the millions of dollars that are paid to power five football and basketball coaches, but whether or not I like it is not the point.

If you want to be competitive and hire a coach that gives you the chance to be competitive for several years, you have to pay more than the competition. The competition includes schools like Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia and others who are paying outrageous salaries.

I also don’t believe you have to be 55 to be a great football coach. I trust my life to pilots under forty, and a stock brokers under thirty-five. Right now, I could get pretty enthusiastic about a President under fifty.

Nebraska needs to take a risk if it is going to return to being competitive. What you don’t risk is character. That’s a deal breaker. But it is really not as complicated as it looks. John Cook won the Big Ten Conference before he became the Nebraska head volleyball coach. Tom Osborne won two national championships before he became Nebraska’s head football coach.

To win at Nebraska you need to have had success as college head football coach. You need to be on the upside of your career. You need to be a good fit, but most importantly you need to have shown that you can win and win again. You need to be extraordinary.

–Terry Pettit


Timeout for Crazy Time

Crazy time is when you only see five players on the court and the libero is hiding behind her teammates at the end of the bench.

Crazy time is when a freshman you wanted to redshirt has to play because of an injury and she can’t get out of the way of the setter in transition.

Crazy time is when your best player forgot her uniform and you have to decide whether to teach her a lesson or have a chance to compete.

Crazy time is when an experienced player continues to attack the ball without varying her point of contact, placement, or arm-speed.

Crazy time is when your assistant coach signals for the serve on the wrong side of the clipboard.

Crazy time is when a setter tries to make the most spectacular set in every situation.

Crazy time is when there is a head coach, two assistants and a volunteer coach on the bench and one person is doing all the talking in a timeout.

Crazy time is when “startled” appears to be your teams’ base position.

Crazy time is when the AD and the SWA sit together at home match where you beat your rival and neither comes down to offer congratulations.

Crazy time is when you find out a club coach is encouraging one of your players to consider transferring to a “power five” program.

Crazy time is when an SWA encourages a player to come to the SWA with her problems rather than having the player talk with the head coach first.

Crazy time is when the opponent releases into a rotation defense when you are out-of-system and your left side player keeps tipping over the block.

Crazy time is when the opposing setter, not much bigger than a marble, two shoots the ball for a kill at a critical point in the match.

Crazy time is when any player makes a goofy mistake then turns to her teammates and says, “My bad.”

Crazy time is when you have 10 more kills then the opponent, twice as many blocks, two more service aces and you are down 2-0 because your players can’t get out of their own way.

Crazy time is when you focus on strategy and tactics and your players don’t know who is going to pass the ball in the gaps.

Crazy time is when a head coach communicates out of frustration rather than choosing a posture, tone and language that will give a player the best chance to adjust and play with confidence.

Crazy time is when there isn’t a core group of people on the court that you can coach rather than manage.

Crazy time is when you tell yourself the lie; the behavior on the court doesn’t reflect my coaching.

Terry Pettit – www.terrypettit.com


Coaching The Coach In The Mirror

There are three benchmarks that many coaches look for when evaluating a recruit: talent, attitude and effort. To that I would add a fourth, the willingness of an athlete to be uncomfortable as she develops. This combination usually leads to an exceptional player.

As coaches we don’t think of ourselves as performers. We consider ourselves teachers and leaders, and yet I believe that holding ourselves to the same standards that we use to evaluate a player is a reasonable way to measure our preparation and work habits.

It is a cliché to say that coaches work hard, but there is at least as much variance in how hard and focused individual coaches work as there is between athletes in their commitment and preparation to reach a goal.

There are head coaches who are working fifteen hours a day to make a program better, and there are coaches checking in at 10:00 a.m. and punching out after practice. While there are some successful coaches that can error on the side of thinking too much about their program, (I can think of one head coach who cannot sit through an entire movie without thinking about how to make her third rotation stronger) I know of very few consistently successful high school and college coaches who are not out-working their competition.

Are their programs that begin with significant advantages? Yes. It is easier to interest a recruit in Stanford, Texas or Florida then it is to some of their competitors. But even at those schools sustained success is not as easy as it would appear. If Stanford were to put together two or three consecutive seasons where they did not compete for a conference championship it would dramatically impact their recruiting. Recruiting is very fickle. It is not always where you are ranked that is important but the direction that public opinion believes you are moving. Two recruiting mistakes in the same year combined with an injury can send a program spiraling to a different level.

We all know how important a positive attitude is for the people we are coaching, and each of us could list at least a couple of players who never reached their potential because of their sense of entitlement or the fact they just didn’t get it. The same can be true of coaches. There are assistant coaches who believe they are not getting the opportunity to become head coaches because of their gender, when in fact, it is there decision to see themselves as victims that prevents their development.

There are head coaches who take far fewer risks then they ask of their athletes. In scheduling, networking, and recruiting they choose to play it safe. Why go after the better players when I am more likely to be rejected? Why schedule stronger competition when we are more likely to be defeated? Why network with peers when it is more comfortable to communicate with people I already have a relationship with? Why develop an offense different from other teams when if it doesn’t work I will look foolish? Why work at increasing our attendance when we have so much competition from professional sports? Why continue to work at building something remarkable when the person I report to is only interested in us being competitive?

Many of us could not respond to the same demands and expectations that we place on our student athletes if an administrator placed similar demands on us. We ask athletes to be uncomfortable every day. We ask them to set stretch goals and to lay a foundation through strength training, nutrition and conditioning that will give them the best chance to reach their target. We ask them to stay in town during the summer so that they can develop a sense of purpose with their teammates, and we ask them to work camps so they can understand the game from a different perspective. We ask them to refine fundamentals, and if we are a great coach, we never stop asking.

What do we ask of ourselves? How uncomfortable are we willing to be? Do we travel each year to spend a couple of weeks learning from our peers? Do we spend a month during the spring visiting junior programs within our region? Do we develop local and regional coaches? Do we develop relationships with better coaches that will impact our scheduling? Do we watch men’s volleyball and try to determine what aspects of the men’s game we could apply to our own? Do we hire assistant coaches with talents better than our own or do we choose comfort over talent? Who do we ask to help us to hold ourselves accountable?

Talent, effort, attitude and the willingness to be uncomfortable are characteristics that are just as important in coaching as they are in a prospective team captain. So consider strapping this compass to your wrist. Did I work as hard today as my middle blocker? Did I take more risks than the freshman that I am teaching new footwork? Am I as open minded to new ideas and fundamentals as the setter I trying to retrain? Do I reflect the passion that I want from our libero? Am I projecting an attitude that the culture we are building is getting better every day, or am I caught up in a cycle of defeatism and victim-hood? We all know the athlete who spends more energy trying not to work hard then it would take to embrace the opportunity. Sometimes we can be that person. — Terry Pettit


Four Lives That Mattered

      My father and three close friends died this past year. Jeff Schmahl was a colleague, confidant, frequent golf partner, and the father of HuskerVision; Weyland Beeghly was my roommate at Bethany Theological Seminary who entered the foreign service and served at the American embassy in Moscow while writing and singing songs about pig farming; Harold Andersen was the former publisher of the Omaha World-Herald, a lover of poetry, Augusta National, and one of the most generous and welcoming people I ever met. My father was my mentor, best friend and the foundation of our family.

I had the privilege of talking with Jeff, Harold Andersen, and my father shortly before their deaths. Weyland had suffered Parkinson’s disease for the last ten years that he believed was caused by the former Soviet Union shooting radio waves into the American embassy over several years. He had a disarming wit, and in my mind was one of the unsung heroes of his country, quietly going about his work of estimating the crop yields in the countries he was stationed. My last conversation with Weyland was in late October, and he was growing more frustrated as the disease prevented him from doing simple tasks even though his mind could recall the smallest details of our friendship. He died on December 10 from complications in surgery. We walked down Michigan Avenue together in 1968 protesting against the Democratic National Convention powerless beyond our choice of shoes.

Jeff died of pancreatic cancer, and in his last year and a half wrote a powerful blog titled “The Last Train” about his passions, his family, and his battle with the “Big C.” His work ethic, his values, his commitment to his family and friends were inspiring. The toughest thing about Jeff’s death was that chemotherapy had seemed to give him a reprieve until everything turned at the end. In our last conversation, two weeks before his death, we set a golf date for September.

I called Harold Andersen on my way to the Final Four in Omaha. He had just been released from the hospital, and he answered the phone with a strong, enthusiastic voice. We talked about the movie “Spotlight” which I encouraged him to see with his wife Marian because it focuses on the value of investigative journalism. We talked about poetry and the chances of Nebraska winning a fourth National Championship in volleyball. We agreed to talk again soon, after the championship.

He died the next day and his obituary noted that he was considered a “giant” in the newspaper industry. The University of Nebraska had no better friends than Harold and Marian Andersen who gave continuously to provide for a better university.

My father died of a weakened heart at 93 with my brother Jack and I in the room and my daughter Emma having held his hand for most of the morning. He was a remarkable man. Anything that Jack and I learned about coaching was through his mentoring. His wisdom was exceeded only by his humility. When he was in pain during hospice we wished for his death to come soon, but as soon as he passed I wanted to talk with him and continue to do so. Without his presence, I have gone through weeks of not quite knowing who I am.

What these four people had in common was a love of face-to-face conversation. They loved language, ideas, and they didn’t have to have the same opinion as the people they had coffee with or played golf with or went for long walks with. They didn’t see themselves as the center of the universe but they didn’t suffer fools either. They considered themselves lucky and when I was in their presence I did too.

— Terry Pettit


Thanksgiving 2011

 

I love places:

like the earth barely covering

the stem of the tomato plant

on the balcony sunning

or other ones with names:

Jeremy’s Run near Luray

where one morning April

a brook trout beautiful

rose speckled from darkness

to the whirling light

off a Panther Martin.

There are some places,

the Appalachian trail,

or Route 1 north of Mendocino

that are too big for me

to comprehend.

I am better off with little

streams like the one

falling out of Turquoise lake

toward the Rio Grande

South of Taos leaning

into the mid day sun

or on Guadalupe plaza

where Gringos, Navajos, hippies

and touristas feather in

and out of store fronts,

small fish on coral.

Have you seen Pea Ridge

in Northwest Arkansas

covered with fog smoke

in March lifting from cannon

fired a century and a half ago?

I am so happy I saw it

before everything I own

had a camera embedded in its skin;

I cannot survive without naming

the grasses that part

fresh and gold green

beneath my feet

or calling to killdeer,

milkweed, spiderwort, obsidian.

The naming of things

is the first to go

followed by story and recollection,

and then the places themselves

fall away into a fen of ambivolence.

Meganser, ash fall, Northern Lights, crayfish.

We have been given a lifetime

to learn to love

the world we live with.

— Terry Pettit


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