The next great American setter is setting balls off the walls of a hayloft in Indiana. She is setting off the bounce on a concrete playground in Pittsburgh. She is playing pepper with her sister in Mississippi.
She will benefit from other great American setters though she may not know their names. Mary Jo Peppler led Sol Ross State to two national championships as a setter-coach. Mary Jo was a USVBA All American in four different decades. She was also named most valuable player in the 1970 World Championships. Among her many gifts was her presence.
Debbie Green led USC to two national championships in 1977 and 1978 and defined what it meant to be a trained setter in the United States. She demonstrated that location was more important than size.
Lori Endicott, was named “Best Setter” in the Barcelona Olympics in part because she was as fundamentally sound from 25’ off the net as she was with a perfect pass.
Jordyn Poulter played with poise and command as she led the 2020 US women’s Olympic volleyball team to its first gold medal in Tokyo.
Other athletes have contributed to the quiver of talents that can come to define a great setter. Micha Hancock has been a dominant server at both the collegiate and international level where she has scattered receivers like bowling pins.
Lauren Carlini led a team to an NCAA national championship match in her freshman year and moved in a way that approached ballet on the court.
Last season, Kentucky senior setter Madison Lilley, was not only the best player in the country, she set her team to a .349 hitting percentage while leading them to a national championship against a University of Texas team that had extraordinary size and talent.
The next great American setter will benefit from all of these women, as she takes her own path. She may play high school and club volleyball but, like some of the women who preceded her, she may also play basketball, soccer or run track. If so, she will benefit from using different footwork patterns and fundamentals from other sports and the physical recovery her body will receive from not playing volleyball 24/7.
How will we know who she is? It will not be by her physical size. She could be 5’8“or 6’2”. It will not be by her dominant hand. It will not be by hours of overtraining with a coach who insists she play only volleyball. It will not be because her parents provide the primary motivation.
She will move through the ball setting off either foot, with her wrists appearing to lift her off the floor. She will seem to be in constant flight that may mesmerize her opponents. Opposing coaches will spend time in practice training their blockers not to focus on her flight or be at risk of not watching the attackers. The tempo and release of the ball from her hands will be quick and consistent but it is her movement that people will come to celebrate.
How will this come about? It will happen through hours of lonely practice, setting balls off a wall and experimenting with footwork, geometry, and physics, with the goal of discovery as opposed to perfection.
She will come to love the game in a different way, not for what the game can bring her in external rewards but because of the game itself. She will have a kinesthetic awareness that not even she understands. Everyone will want to be her teammate, not just for the success that she brings about but because of the joy she plays with and the lack of fear in her decisions.
The next great American setter will be as precise with her set location as Alysha Clark is with a three-point shot. She will see the court as well as Wayne Gretzky anticipated where his teammates would be on an ice rank before they knew they would be there. She will have the same impact on women’s volleyball that Mia Hamm had on women’s soccer.
She is out there now, leaving marks on a garage with a volleyball that is as familiar with concrete as it is with Taraflex. Our goal is not so much to find her, as it is to get out of her way when she arrives.
–Terry Pettit www.terrypettit.com