Archive for the ‘News’ Category


The Problem With Loyalty in Collegiate Sport and Congress

Many teams and athletic departments include “loyalty” as one of the primary tenets in their mission statements. Frequently it is joined with other values like integrity, service, and work ethic.

Institutions tend to make decisions based on goals and performance rather than the values that are part of a mission statement. This is true of athletic teams, BMW salesmen and members of Congress.

Several men’s basketball coaches who are in the Hall of Fame have put their universities on probation by either ignoring NCAA rules or deliberately looking the other way while directing their assistant coaches, managers, graduate assistants, or academic counsellors to commit felonies and misdemeanors.

Only one of these coaches has been fired. (Rick Pitino at Louisville)  Goals trump values when it comes to revenue sports. Athletic departments are much more eager to embrace a mission statement when there is a transgression by a female head coach, or someone coaching a non-revenue sport, like tennis or lacrosse. God forbid, a woman’s field hockey coach pushes her players too hard or yells at them inappropriately. There is a direct relationship between revenue and coaching longevity.

The real problem comes when goals and values collide. For example, a head coach chooses to ignore that some of his players are enrolled in a bogus class that does not require a syllabus, periodic tests or, as in the recent case at the University of North Carolina, attendance.

The team cannot reach its goals unless certain players are eligible and academic fraud is one of the ways to guarantee those athletes will be on the court. This situation continued for over twenty years at UNC and yet Head Basketball Coach, Roy Williams, claimed he had no knowledge of it.

I have admired how Coach Williams has coached his teams at North Carolina and Kansas, and the genuine concern he has in the welfare of his players. He is one of the goody guys in college basketball. But I also know that it is in the DNA of every head coach to know what brand of toothpaste an athlete is using, who they are dating, whether or not they are going to class and whether or not the athlete is eating original or multi-grain Cheerios for breakfast. A successful head coach’s life is dependent upon gathering information and recognizing patterns.

This is where loyalty comes in. A head coach is asked to have loyalty to several different communities: individual athletes, the team, the athletic department, the university, the local community, and at a state institution, the people who pay taxes to fund his salary. When the battle between goals and values begin, a head coach is emotionally connected to players and the team’s goals much more so than to the larger communities.

For a coach to choose to lead with values over expediency requires him to have already made that decision before the battle begins, otherwise he will lead with emotion rather than the mission statement tucked away in a shoebox in the attic.

In a successful program, you can come to believe that the team you coach does so many worthwhile things in helping to develop the lives of the people that you are coaching, that you put yourself in position to ignore something that might derail impending success or the image of what you have helped to create.

When this happens, an All-American quarterback who has committed a felony sits out for one game against a weak opponent instead of being suspended for the season. (The argument being that suspending him for longer than one or two games would penalize all of the players who were not committing felonies.) A basketball player who breaks his hand by slamming it into the wall after practice in a fit of rage is promoted for a red-shirt year which is not designed to reward this type of behavior.

Both of those decisions may help the success of the individual teams but they also may hurt other programs in the department who lose a recruit because a family chooses not to send their daughter to a school that doesn’t recognize the larger communities that are impacted by being “loyal” to the player or to a head coach’s goals instead of creating a safe environment for their daughter.

This is not easy stuff and I don’t know of any head coach or leader who has not struggled with making the right decision every time. I once coached an exceptional player who went out drinking, came back to the dormitory and decked a fellow student who called her a derogatory name. This was on the eve of an off-season regional event that we needed to win to go to a national tournament. I benched the player for the tournament, and we were fortunate enough to win and advance. But would I have made the same decision if it had happened during the regular season?

I would hope so, but I don’t know. I was an inexperienced coach trying to establish success, and I hadn’t really even thought about mission and purpose. I was more worried that everyone would find out that I didn’t know what I was doing. With the increase in budgets, salaries, and expectations, conflicts with divided loyalties are even more prominent today.

When you look at the behavior of the house and the senate, two teams that we believe should have as their primary loyalty to do what is best for the people of our country, they appear to have loyalty only to their own political party, major donors, or in many cases their own political future. We are waiting for a team made up of prominent members of our federal government to step forward, and act like a team that is grounded to the mission tucked away in the shoe box.

We are waiting for them to embrace the values of our first team who signed their names to this mission:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

–Terry Pettit www.terrypettit.com


There are Trillions of Galaxies

Each one with more stars than grains of sand on Half Moon Bay. Every star is a sun with a covey of planets. Every second new stars rise from the gases of collapsing stars.

There are stars that are billions of years old; there are stars that existed long before the earth was born. It would be foolish to believe that there are not planets with trees that grow taller than redwoods, reptiles older than crocodiles, fish that can choose to swim or fly.

Perhaps this is imagination. Perhaps one of us has imagined a universe outfitted with friends, enemies, tigers, toads, and disease; someone has dreamed of famine, chocolate, anticipation and desire; someone has created wiffle balls and cannon.

The Greeks, or perhaps you, gave our galaxy the most beautiful name, the Milky Way. There is a chance this life we are living is actually in the past or the future. You may be reading something you have already written. Your name may live on the walls of an ancient cave.

–Terry Pettit www.terrypettit.com


A Conversation on the Paths we Take

Last night we had dinner at the home of a person who was from my hometown. I didn’t know him well. He was in the same class as my brother who, with our spouses, attended the meal as well. For several hours, we discussed high school friends and events in a small town in northwest Indiana. It was a good evening of face-to-face conversation.

As the evening passed, the conversation became more intimate. Our host shared his experiences from a career with the United States Marine Corps that included active duty in Viet Nam and the Middle East, and more recently, as an outside contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. His life was in jeopardy on several occasions, and he also had the opportunity to save the lives of others in difficult situations. Over time, his rank grew from corporal to colonel and he developed close relationships with several peers who are now working in high levels of our government.

He also shared his grief about the death of his wife from a medical situation that over twenty doctors and two exploratory surgeries were not able to discover. And there was more grief about the fact that he was in Afghanistan for months trying to get home while she was in pain. But there were good things too.

They had two sons and both were healthy and doing well. He had developed lifetime relationships with people both under and above his command. He had engaged the trust of several people who are doing their best to try and keep our ship of state afloat in chaotic times.

Sometimes we think because we shared a locker room with someone in junior high or they were  our chemistry lab partner in high school that we probably have some insight into who they were becoming. What I continue to learn in face-to-face conversations with almost everyone I meet is how complicated and unpredictable our lives are.

Everyone is grieving something. Everyone has lost someone important to them. Everyone is somewhere in a maze where there are thousands of paths, some of them filled with interference and some of them lit with grace. The impressive thing is that we go on. And if we are lucky we continue to take risks, develop hope, and on occasion have an intimate conversation which can be as important as oxygen to our being.

— Terry Pettit


Why Nebraska Won The National Championship

The following story first appeared in the publication, Hail Varsity, (www.hailvarsity.com) which covers the University of Nebraska athletics.

John Cook, when asked when was the first moment he thought his team might win the 2017 National Championship – “It never happened. I still don’t believe we won it.”

John Cook had good reason to be skeptical about the 2017 season. The Huskers graduated four starters from the 2016 team, three of them All Americans who would go on to play for the U.S. national team or professional volleyball. He also had to replace two assistant coaches, Dani Busboom and Chris Tamas who became head coaches at Louisville and Illinois.

In early August, Cook’s starting setter, 5’11” senior Kelly Hunter, who hadled the Huskers to a national championship in 2015, discovered that she couldn’t lift her arm above her shoulder. Kelly had an upper body injury that would keep her from serving, blocking, and practicing against live attack through the first month of the season.

The injury also kept her from playing in the first two matches, a 1-3 loss to Oregon and a 2-3 loss to Florida in a late August tournament in Gainesville. She would only play backrow in the next three matches. Her first match as a six-rotation setter was against UCLA on September 8, and she wouldn’t be at full strength until mid-October.

Hunter was a much better setter and leader than many people outside the Big Ten Conference were aware of. She isn’t flashy. She doesn’t set the middle from her knees or execute a 360° spin-set to her right-side attacker from fifteen feet off the net. What she does do is set hittable balls. She is a strong blocker and plays exceptional floor defense. She has a mindset that allows her to move on to the next play, and most importantly, she wins.

Hunter had taken a redshirt year in 2014 because she didn’t want to sit another year behind senior setter Mary Pollmiller, who had transferred from Tennessee the previous season. In November of 2014, Mary was struggling in practice with double contacts. Coach Cook approached Hunter and asked if she would abandon her redshirt year and be ready to go. Hunter said no thank you. If Hunter had burned that year of eligibility, Nebraska would not have been competing for a national championship in 2017.

The same would hold true with senior middle blocker Briana Holman who had paid her own way to come to Nebraska from LSU in 2015. Cook had tried everything to get LSU to release Briana to play immediately. LSU had released Holman to several schools, including Penn State, but not Nebraska.

When LSU did not release Briana, Cook moved Amber Rolfzen from a
right-side attacker position to middle blocker where she became a
dominant player, dominant enough to lead the Huskers with 1.58 blocks per set and attack and a .372 attack percentage. She became a major factor in the Huskers National Championship run in 2015.

If LSU had granted Briana’s release, Nebraska may not have won the
National Championship in 2015 because Amber Rolfzen would have
remained on the right side. Equally important is the fact that Holman
wouldn’t have produced 26 kills and .536 attack percentage in two matches against Penn State in 2017 because she would have exhausted her two years of eligibility. Holman was the most efficient attacker and blocker in the championship rounds but went unnoticed in conference and national honors.
The following first appeared in Hail Varsity (https://hailvarsity.com) a publication that covers Nebraska sports.

Entering 2017, Nebraska was extremely thin at the left-side hitter position. Two players returned with experience: 6’3” junior Mikela Foecke, the MVP of Nebraska’s National Championship in 2015, who has a cannon for an arm, and Olivia Boender a redshirt junior who had come off the bench in previous years to give the Huskers an offensive boost.

Medical issues would prevent Boender from traveling and she eventually left the team. That meant that Annika Albrecht a 6’ senior defensive specialist for her entire career at Nebraska, would have to become a six rotation outside hitter.

Cook had hired Tyler Hildebrand a former All American outside hitter, U.S. National team player, and assistant men’s coach at Long Beach State to replace the departed Chris Tamas. Hildebrand’s first project was tutoring Albrecht on how a smaller outside hitter could be an effective attacker at an elite level.

Albrecht had 25 kills and 19 errors hitting out of the back row in 2016 for a .070 attack percentage. After watching hours of video with Hildebrand, Albrecht developed several shots and strategies on how to attack the block. The results were remarkable. Annika hit .278 while averaging over three kills per set in the Big Ten Conference.

Mikaela Foecke was also going through a transformation. In her first two seasons, she played only in the front row, while being trained to eventually become a six-rotation player. Throughout the first half of the season, Foecke would be a serving target for opponents, not because of her performance, but because on a team that returned a core of solid passers in libero Kenzie Maloney, Albrecht, and defensive specialist Sydney Townsend.

It made sense for opponents to test the player with the least experience. Foecke hit .326 in the Big Ten Conference with every team setting up their defense to try and stop her. In twenty conference matches and 69 sets Foecke had only ten reception errors while averaging 3.7 kills per set. With each match her middle back play improved to the point that by the end of the regular season Foecke and Albrecht were the best pair of middle back defenders in the Big Ten.

The one person who was aware of this development was Cook’s other hire, Kayla Banwarth, a former walk-on at Nebraska who became a four-year starter for the Huskers and who was a libero with the U.S. National Team from 2011 through the Rio Olympics. Kayla was one of several butterfly effects that brought about a national championship for Nebraska.

If you want to win a Division I national championship run a 5-1system. The last team to run a 6-2 offense and win a division I national championship was USC in 2003 when they defeated Florida 3-1 in Dallas. That does not mean a 6-2 is not the best system for any given team.

Teams run two setter offenses for various reasons: Sometimes they don’t have a middle attacker that is effective off one foot behind the setter. Sometimes a setter is too small to set a strong block. Sometimes a team struggles to side-out with only two front row options. Sometimes one of the setters is also team’s best pin hitter.

It is rare, however, for a team to run a 6-2 offense when a team has an extraordinary setter. Coincidentally, an extraordinary setter is also the best path to a national championship.

Nebraska would face two teams in Kansas City that ran two different, two-setter offenses. Penn State ran a traditional 6-2 with one of the setters, 6’ senior, Abby Detering, also playing in the front row as a right-side attacker. Penn State led the nation with a .339 attack percentage.

A 6-2 offense, however, meant fewer sets (perhaps 2 a set) to Haleigh Washington who was arguably the best slide hitter in the country. Washington’s attack percentage was over .500 for the regular season. She was the closest thing to a sure kill in college volleyball. Had Penn State run a 5-1 with ten more sets to Washington behind the setter, it would have been an even more difficult task for anyone to beat the Lions.

The challenge for Nebraska defensively was in reducing the percentage of in-system sets that Washington and Big Ten Player of the Year, 6’1” senior outside hitter Simone Lee, would get during the match. Both have futures as international players. Unless they were underset they were almost impossible to stop at the net.

Florida ran a hybrid 5-2 system, with a smaller backrow setter, 5’9” redshirt junior, Allie Monserez, who was subbed out in the front row for 6’2” sophomore setter Cheyenne Huskey, a stronger blocker. Monserez set go-to right-side attacker 6’ senior Shainah Joseph who hit .356 for the year. Huskey set four-time All American middle blocker, 6’ 4” Rahmat Alhassan who hit .401 for the year.

Florida left side hitter Carli Snyder had 1,230 attacks, more than twice as many as anyone else. In system, Florida had four very strong attackers. Out-of- system, Florida had one option, Carli Snyder. Snyder hit for a .225 attack percentage on the season, but if the Gators would have had a second strong left-side hitter, Snyder’s attack percentage would likely have climbed to .260 with
fewer backrow attacks.

Serving and passing are not the “wow” skills that many collegiate teams focus on in recruiting because coaches believe that with a libero and fifteen subs they can find smaller defensive specialists to bring in for the “bigs.” But evaluating who can pass at the college level while watching club volleyball is about as productive as finding the right cantaloupe at a Winn-Dixie in winter.

If you are running a wash drill where teams are receiving free balls instead of tough serves, both Penn State and Florida might dominate Nebraska. But they do not play Newcomb in the NCAA tournament.

Think of the 2017 Nebraska volleyball team as a torpedo boat-destroyer, not a military ship equipped to destroy submarines, but a volleyball teamdesigned to blow-up two-setter offenses. The weapons are two strong back-row attackers, Foecke and Albrecht, who can attack the opponent’s back-row setters and force the opponent into uncomfortable situations.

The back-row attackers are complemented by six strong servers that are moving receivers between 3’ and 10’ off the backline.
The Huskers were also the best passing team in the tournament with a setter who makes great decisions. Hunter’s talent is leveraged when playing against a two-setter system because her hitters do not have to adjust to different tempos and two different decision makers. This advantage is maximized in end-game and has resulted in a 16-1 record for the Huskers when Kelly Hunter is the setter in NCAA tournament matches.

Nebraska also saw remarkable development in three players during the last two weeks of the season. Junior libero, Kenzie Maloney, served nine of her thirty-seven aces in the last three matches of the NCAA tournament. She also had several long service runs that either created separation from the opponent or brought Nebraska back from of three or more points. The improvement in her serving wasn’t technical but a decision by Kenzie to serve with confidence because that is what her team needed.

Freshman right-side player Jazz Sweet started the season strong but had trouble scoring kills against a single block during the second half of theconference season. She was being dug on crosscourt attack. Sweet altered her mindset, and began attacking the opponent’s block. With success, Hunter trusted her even more, and she had several critical side-outs in the fourth and fifth sets while attacking against Penn State’s Simone Lee, perhaps the most intimidating left side blocker in the country.

Throughout most of the season redshirt freshman 6’ 4” Lauren Stivrins was a good attacker and a solid blocker. She became a different player in the fourth and fifth sets in the semifinal match against Penn State. She had nine blocks in the match and won several critical jousts by out-quicking the opponent across the net.

Despite all this, Penn State served to win the match with the score 26-25 in the fourth set. Nebraska mishandled the serve and had to bump set the ball to Briana Holman who hit the ball to Penn State’s libero Kendall White at middle back. White dug the ball perfectly to the net, but Penn State’s right side player, 6’2” Heidi Thelen, never turned her head to pick up the ball or the back-row setter and as Thelen started to transition to the sideline, she inadvertently tripped Abby Detering. Detering collapsed as the ball hit the net and dropped to the floor. It was Deus Ex Machina for the Big Red.

What some may not remember is that Kelly Hunter served to win the same set at 24–22 and served the ball out in Nebraska’s strongest blocking rotation. After the misplay by Penn State at 25-26, Nebraska went on to win the fourth set on a block from Stivrins, and a wipe off-the-block from Sweet.

At a press conference before the semifinals, Penn State head coach Russ Rose said that the one thing he could guarantee is that Penn State would never play tight. I was startled when he said it, not because it hadn’t been true. Penn’s State’s dominance in college volleyball has been, in large part, because they have had extraordinary talent and their teams have appeared to play stress free at critical points in tournament matches. But why would you say it? Did it indicate that subconsciously he may have had that
concern, or was as he sending a message to his players? In either case, I made a mental note of it to see whether or not that proved to be true.

The fifth set was a mixture of unforced errors and courageous plays. Both teams missed serves, and at times mishandled the ball. The determining factor was the confidence in Hunter’s setting and decision making. Penn State’s setters were playing hard but frequently undersetting or not communicating with their attackers. It was the best time to be in a 5-1 system with a setter that everyone trusted.

I thought there was a very good chance that the team that won Penn State–Nebraska semifinal would likely win the national championship, although Stanford might have been the toughest matchup for Nebraska. But Stanford was flatter than the state of Kansas in the first two sets against Florida. The pressure of repeating with a new coach had not surfaced during the season, but it is impossible to replicate that pressure in practice or even conference play.

Florida had their own kind of motivation and pressure. They had come back from the dead in a regional final against USC when everything seemed lost. Florida’s hall of fame head coach, Mary Wise, called a timeout in the fourth set against USC and at the top of her voice exhorted her team to compete.

It was almost like a jockey hopping off a horse, running in front of it, and pleading with the horse to run faster. Coach Wise willed her team to the fifth set and a victory. But should a team capable of winning a national championship need a head coach to challenge it to compete?

Florida’s best chance to defeat Nebraska was either to stay in-system so Alhassan and Joseph could be sets of choice, or hope that Nebraska would look over the edge for the first time this season, and realize they were playing for the national championship. Florida was in-system for the third set, which resulted in a .308 attack percentage and a 25-18 win.

But Nebraska did what they had done for most of the year in the other three sets. They held both Penn State and Florida to over 100 points below their season attack percentages, while playing better floor defense, serving tougher, and getting the ball to the player who would make better decisions than anyone else in the tournament, Kelly Hunter.

–Terry Pettit


Choosing to be Uncomfortable in Coaching – Terry Pettit

It’s President’s Day and I am sitting in a purple coffee shop on 4th Ave. in Tucson, Arizona. The password for the internet is buysomething. I did. I am enjoying a cinnamon bagel with cream cheese, a mocha and an occasional licorice scottie to celebrate my last regular column for Coaching Volleyball.

You are not here. And why should you be? There are junior tournaments in St. Louis, Omaha, Detroit, everywhere really, where you are either coaching, parenting or recruiting. Not so long ago I was there too as a coach for our daughter’s 17 open team. That was seven years ago.

The other night I reviewed the final scores of every match that I coached at Nebraska, and there was not a year that I couldn’t identify at least a few matches that I could have made better decisions. Even though I have not coached a college match in nearly two decades, I think I understand the game better now than when I was coaching. And you do to. And it brings me to this point which I have made repeatedly in columns and books:

Experience is only valuable with reflection.

If you are like me, you may find it difficult to watch the last match each season, particularly if your team did not perform well. But if you can watch the match with a certain detachment, you are likely to see that it didn’t play out quite like you thought it did.

There are some players you thought were disasters but the video shows they played better than you thought. You may notice that your team’s base position wasn’t effective against transition. You may see that you lost the match much earlier when your schedule didn’t include someone with the athleticism of your final opponent. If you are really lucky, you may begin to see that there is a pattern that appears in several of the season ending matches that you’ve coached. This is where courage comes in. Unlike your players, you are not likely to have someone pushing you to adjust.

When I work a head coach, the first question I ask is, “How do you keep yourself from reaching your goals?” It is a deceptively simple question that does not allow for excuses. If I phrased the question, “What keeps you from reaching your goals?”, it would be easy to deflect responsibility by saying the following:

• I don’t get enough support from my athletic administration.
• I can’t get a tough opponent to play outside our conference in November.
• Millennials don’t want to separate themselves from the group. No one wants to take charge.
• The better athletes all want to leave this state.
• My middle attacker refuses to communicate with my setter.
• My Athletic Director is only interested in women’s basketball.
• Our academics are so high we can’t get the better players in school.

There may be some truth in any of these observations just as there is some truth in angina. But the truth doesn’t lie in symptoms, it lives in the heart. And the heart of a great coach is his or her ability to adjust after recognizing patterns in their own behaviors and decisions that keep a program from moving forward.

Every coach needs a dark night of the soul where they are willing to ask themselves and others who care about them, why they are not getting better. The coaches that need it the most are the coaches who have experienced success and have enshrined a system, a way of relating to players, their use of data, or their philosophy of recruiting. Because something worked in the past they cannot bring themselves to change.

Last night I watched as Olympic downhill skier Lindsey Vonn was interviewed after her second practice run. She was watching her closest competitor come down the hill as she spoke. When the announcer asked her what she would do on tomorrow’s practice run she answered, “I noticed that Sofia Goggia took different lines than I did on the middle section of the hill. I will try those lines tomorrow and see if they work better.”

Lindsey Vonn was two days from her final Olympic downhill competition. She has won four World Cups, an Olympic gold medal, and was the number one rated women’s downhill skier in the world, and yet she was watching her competition to see if she could learn something from them and perhaps make an adjustment.

The coaches who aren’t stuck when they are in the second half of their careers are the coaches who have chosen to be uncomfortable. They continue to learn. They continue to explore new ways of training, preparing and relating to players. They coach as if they are on a balance board, a tight rope or downhill skis. They keep their eyes on the target but with each breath they are making adjustments and looking for different lines to get better.

Terry Pettit


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


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