Gophers serve failing to deliver as promised

Minnesota has the fewest aces per set in the Big Ten, despite vow to serve aggressively.

by Charlie Armitz

The serve-pass game is crucial to winning volleyball matches.

Minnesota interim head volleyball coach Laura Bush was fully aware of that sentiment when she implemented an aggressive serving strategy to start the GophersâÄô 2011 season.

What she didnâÄôt know was how poorly that strategy would play out.

No. 14 Minnesota ranks last in the Big Ten with 0.85 service aces per set through its first 13 matches.

The Gophers also rank last in the conference with a service ace-to-error ratio of 0.45.

The result: a 1-3 conference record âÄî MinnesotaâÄôs worst start to Big Ten play since 1994 âÄîheading into the teamâÄôs most difficult stretch of the season.

Bush said the team has been forced to serve with less aggression in its first four Big Ten matches.

âÄúWe ask for aggression, we practice aggression,âÄù Bush said. âÄúIn matches itâÄôs a different environment for the players. WeâÄôve gone back to focusing on the fundamentals of serving and our routine.âÄù

That mentality was on full display in the GophersâÄô straight-set losses to Ohio State and Penn State this past weekend.

Minnesota combined to serve two aces âÄî nine fewer than the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions âÄî in the two losses.

Yet the Gophers committed 15 service errors âÄî four more than their opponents âÄî including a number of errors late in sets when they had a lead. Many of those errors came on serves with little pace or spin.

MinnesotaâÄôs other  losses tell a similar tale. The Gophers combined for 10 aces and 30 service errors in their five-set losses to USC, Kansas and Illinois.

In the fifth sets of those losses, the team had only one ace âÄî a let serve âÄî and four service errors. Minnesota lost its final two points to the Jayhawks on service errors.

âÄúWe always talk about good errors and bad errors, and I feel like sometimes weâÄôve been getting bad errors at bad times,âÄù senior Hailey Cowles said. âÄúWeâÄôve had leads and the [other] teams are putting pressure on us and weâÄôre bleeding points to them at the wrong time.âÄù

Cowles is one of the teamâÄôs most aggressive servers, and her service error total âÄî 26 in 52 sets played âÄî reflects that. Her ace total âÄî seven âÄî does not.

âÄúWeâÄôve had to pull her up in her aggression,âÄù Bush said. âÄúShe has been missing some of her serves. There [are] only certain players that can handle [aggressive serving].âÄù

Cowles led the team with 30 aces and 41 service errors in 2009 before missing all of 2010 with a torn left ACL.

She said she believes the team is serving aggressively in 2011, but not on a consistent basis.

âÄúAfter you miss a couple [serves], youâÄôre going to go back to a more conservative game and just try to put a little bit of pressure on [the opponent],âÄù Cowles said.

Bush seconded CowlesâÄô thought about the mental barriers of serving.

âÄú[The players] feel like they have to pull up on their serve because they donâÄôt want to miss,âÄù Bush said. âÄúThey want to get a run going. TheyâÄôre not at their most aggressive.âÄù

Part of the problem is MinnesotaâÄôs lack of depth. The Gophers have 11 active players on their roster, and only seven of them serve regularly.

Senior libero Jessica Granquist, who is one of the seven, has been in and out of the serving rotation in 2011, but she is a key part of the GophersâÄô serve-receive game.

Receiving serves has been just as much of a struggle for Minnesota as serving, especially against teams like Illinois and Penn State with imposing jump servers.

To Granquist, those struggles revolve around the teamâÄôs inability to win the serve-pass game late in sets.

âÄúI think itâÄôs just errors coming at the wrong time,âÄù Granquist said. âÄúItâÄôs not that one team is better than the other team [at] serving or passing.âÄù

Those types of errors are the toughest to explain and Granquist said there isnâÄôt much the team can do about them.

âÄúItâÄôs not a problem,âÄù Granquist said of her teamâÄôs late-set failures. âÄúItâÄôs the nature of competition. You canâÄôt pinpoint why teams make errors at certain times. It just happens.âÄù

Still, the GophersâÄô late-set execution is a pattern worth noting, especially when it presents a strong correlation with poor serving and passing.

Over the course of four matches, Minnesota has blown six leads of three points or more late in sets.

The serving numbers for those four matches? Nine aces, 37 errors.