Aggressive serving key to success in Michigan

by Ben Goessling

With Minnesota’s volleyball team down 29-27 in the second game of its match against Wisconsin on Sunday, opposite hitter Cassie Busse gave a quizzical glance to assistant coach Brian Heffernan as she prepared to serve.

The question: to jump serve or not?

Heffernan’s answer was inaudible amidst the din of 5,383 fans in the Sports Pavilion, but the words on his lips were clear: Go for it.

Busse, the Big Ten leader in service aces per game, responded by unleashing a missile that was popped back up over the net. Trisha Bratford took advantage of the easy opportunity and hammered home a kill.

But on the next serve, Busse’s short toss produced a ball that wound up in the net, sealing a Badgers win in game two and tying the match at one game apiece.

Such has been the story of Minnesota’s aggressive – and sometimes erratic – serving this season. The Gophers lead the conference in service aces per game and opponent hitting percentage but haven’t produced more service aces than errors since their Oct. 12 match against Illinois.

Ironically, the Illinois match was the last time the Gophers lost, which means in spite of the errors, coach Mike Hebert isn’t rushing to change his approach.

“Serving aggressively is a lot like a power pitcher in baseball,” Hebert said. “You can’t lose your aggressive mentality.”

Minnesota committed 18 errors against seven aces last Sunday, but Hebert pays little attention to those statistics, citing more complete ways to measure serving efficiency than the ones which show up in the box score.

“With serving, there are three things you’re trying to get: aces, overpasses (where a team can’t control a serve and it is returned on the first touch) and a poorly passed ball,” he said. “The regular serving statistics are misleading.”

Hebert said he credited Busse with an ace at the end of game two Sunday. Essentially, he said, Bratford’s easy kill was the same as an ace.

The play, as emphatic as it was, didn’t overshadow nine errors by Busse on Sunday. Hebert said “four or five” of the errors barely missed the line, but Busse abandoned her jump serve in the fourth and fifth games.

“You still have to serve tough, but sometimes you do have to bring it down,” she said. “We basically have three levels of intensity in serving, and I couldn’t use my top-level serve on Sunday.”

Both Busse and Erin Martin, who is third in the conference in aces, stressed the importance of serving tough – especially with Minnesota’s most difficult road trip of the season coming up this weekend.

The Gophers will travel to Michigan State on Friday and Michigan on Saturday, attempting to do something no Big Ten team has done this year: escape the Great Lake State with a win.

Michigan is undefeated at home this season, and it is the only team to beat the Spartans at home, leaving the rest of the conference with an imposing gauntlet to run.

And in order for Minnesota (26-3, 13-1 Big Ten) to escape with even a split, something Hebert said he would be “quite content” with, the Gophers must continue to blast away behind the service line.

“The coaches talk about how missed serves don’t affect the end result of a match that often,” Martin said. “You’re putting so much pressure on the other team that it’s OK to miss some.”

ï Meredith Nelson, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from St. Croix Falls, Wis., will join Minnesota as a walk-on next season.

The Gophers only had one scholarship available for next season, which went to Kelly Bowman of Osseo, Minn., but Nelson, whose parents both attended the University, passed up offers from Stanford, Wisconsin and Nebraska to attend Minnesota.

Ben Goessling covers volleyball and welcomes comments at [email protected]