Wittman developing all-around game

Sophomore Ashley Wittman has learned to carry a huge load on both defense and offense.

by Charlie Armitz


Ashley WittmanâÄôs Gopher volleyball career has been a tale of two roles.

In one role, she is an explosive hitter with the ability to overpower defenses and pack the stat sheet.

In the other, sheâÄôs a young player still learning how to play defense.

A three-time state champion at Shakopee High School, Wittman is not an unusual case. Like many top prospects, she has learned that playing at the collegiate level is a more demanding task âÄî both physically and mentally.

Yet the sophomore has been in a unique position throughout her time at Minnesota, forced to carry a huge load on both offense and defense.

âÄúI do everything,âÄù Wittman said. âÄúI serve, I pass, I hit [and] I play defense. As a six-rotation outside hitter, you have that major role. YouâÄôre a pretty key person because you are counted on to do all of those things, and to do them well and consistently.âÄù

Wittman was thrust into that role from the onset of her freshman season, and she was quick to prove her worth.

A member of the Big Ten All-Freshmen team, Wittman led the 2010 Gophers with 515.5 points, 442 kills and 172 errors while playing every set of every match.

She is MinnesotaâÄôs top hitter once again in 2011, ranking first in points (145.5), kills (132), attacks (290) and errors (48) through seven matches.

On defense, she ranks second in digs with 68; last year, she had 400 digs, also second.

To Wittman, who was primarily a hitter in high school, defense is her priority at present.

âÄúI know I can hit,âÄù she said. âÄúIâÄôve done that all my life, but now [defense] is what I have to work on. ItâÄôs not one of my strong suits.

âÄúFor my team to do well, and for me to stay a six-rotation outside hitter, I have to improve on that.âÄù

Throughout her Gopher career, Wittman has struggled to receive serves. As a result, opposing teams have targeted her in an attempt to force errors.

She received 1,103 serves in 2010, far more than any of her teammates. But her serve-receive percentage was also the highest on the team at .970.

So why do teams target her?

âÄúItâÄôs a way of taking her out of an attacking rhythm and giving her another responsibility,âÄù head coach Laura Bush said. âÄúItâÄôs a way to try to manipulate her psychological fortitude [throughout] a match.âÄù

That strategy proved effective in MinnesotaâÄôs loss to California at the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Wittman had 14 kills for the match, but hit just .200 and made one of MinnesotaâÄôs four receiving errors.

The Golden Bears, who won in three close sets, made none.

From the loss, Wittman said she has gained motivation to practice harder.

She has also learned how to better handle her weaknesses.

âÄúI think sheâÄôs taking ownership and more responsibility for her improvement,âÄù Bush said. âÄúSheâÄôs learning how to pass [and] understanding that, as one of our leading players and one of our few six-rotation players, sheâÄôs a target for any opponent.âÄù

While WittmanâÄôs defense has improved, her offense remains her strength. The outside hitter said she has expanded her range in 2011, allowing her to hit for a higher percentage despite many opposing defenses focusing on her more.

She has also made the game easier for her setter, junior Mia Tabberson.

âÄúSheâÄôs very reliable,âÄù Tabberson said. âÄúSheâÄôs able to get us points when we need them. SheâÄôs very calm and relaxed on the court.âÄù

As the season progresses, WittmanâÄôs ability to manage her two roles will be tested. The Gophers lack depth at outside hitter, which will force them to have Wittman set on a regular basis, even at the risk of playing into opponentsâÄô blocking schemes.

Wittman faced a similar situation in 2010. When Minnesota lost seniors Hailey Cowles and Lauren Gibbemeyer to injury, she became the teamâÄôs primary offensive threat.

âÄúShe never got off the court [last year],âÄù Bush said. âÄúI thought she handled it remarkably, especially when we were down two of our top hitters, and she became the top hitter by default.

âÄúThis year, she has more hitters around her who can pick up the load.âÄù

Defensively, the 2011 Gophers are noted for their depth, with two veteran defensive specialists âÄî seniors Cowles and Jessica Granquist âÄî on the roster.

However, Bush will still rely on Wittman to receive serves.

Whether she does so effectively, Bush said, is entirely up to her.

âÄúI feel like sheâÄôs on the verge of taking another big step. She may choose not to âĦ and weâÄôll be fine if she doesnâÄôt. I think she will be a more complete player when she does take that step and starts to hone all of the skills that she has.âÄù