The art of the spike

Ivar Vong and Jack Hunter

Neticia Enesi watches Nevena Djordjevic set the ball and smiles inwardly.

The ball has been perfectly placed, and the defense is out of position. Now, she just has to do what she does best: spike the ball right in the face of the helpless competition.

She takes three steps, left-right-left, and leaps into the air. The opposing team’s middle blocker cringes; everyone in the arena knows what’s coming as Enesi winds up, her hand just inches away from the ball…

The Set

It all starts with the set.

Djordjevic, the talented senior setter for the Ducks, has a role similar to that of a point guard in basketball or a quarterback in football. It is her job to read the defense and find the best place to put the ball for the hitters, all in a matter of seconds.

“The job of the setter is to do exactly what a quarterback does if you were to throw on every single down,” said head coach Jim Moore. “But it’s instantaneous, so the difference between a setter and a quarterback is the quarterback goes through their checks.”

Setters don’t have the luxury of sitting in the pocket and carefully choosing whom to give the ball to. Thus, much of a setter’s job comes down to instinct and experience. Djordjevic has spent more than three years with hitters including Sonja Newcombe and Enesi, and the rapport they have built with each other is instrumental on the court.

“It’s very important to have good chemistry,” said Djordjevic. “You have to have that respect between each other, and trust. This year I feel like we have a lot of trust in each other, and we just respect each other.”

What Moore cautions Djordjevic about is becoming too comfortable setting the people she knows best. That can lead to defenders keying on certain players. Still, that doesn’t mean that setters can’t dish off to a hot hand when the game is on the line. In fact, Moore often encourages this.

“If you’re at 24-24 and Sonja (Newcombe) has put four balls in a row on the floor, she gets it,” said Moore. “There are times that you do that, you just say, ‘This ball is going here, and it is their job to put it on the floor.'”

The Spike

Enesi has been on the receiving end of countless Djordjevic sets, and while her job as a hitter may look like a simple task, it is far more complicated.

“It all starts with the approach,” said Enesi. “Everything is so technical. You can hit the ball as hard as you can, but it depends on how high you get up, your arm swing, (and) your footwork.”

There is also the matter of quickly reading the defense to scan for holes where a spike can be placed. Of course, the game is played at such an elevated pace that this is often
difficult to do.

“Everything happens so fast,” said Enesi. “There are so many factors that go into it. There’s blocking, there’s the defense and they’re moving constantly. If you see the blocker get out, then you can just bring it down the line, or if the middle blocker gets faked out, and they go behind and it’s open, then you have so much more room.”

In dealing with such a complex process, Moore likes to simplify things for his players.

“We, as coaches, make things so complicated,” said Moore. “The three keys to hitting are run, jump, hit and it’s literally that simple.”

Moore also instructs players, particularly the newer ones, to focus on velocity. In his eyes, you cannot hit the ball hard enough.

“Hit it hard,” said Moore. “Good things happen when you swing hard. I say that all the time. There’s the old cliche: You have to have the velocity to overcome reaction time. The velocity of the ball has to be fast enough so that the people on the other side don’t have enough time to react.”

It is the hardest spikes that can literally change the tone of an entire match. Often times, a team struggling to find its rhythm during a match will turn to its best hitters when they need a spark. With one powerful hit, a team can be off and running.

“It’s just an instant rush of accomplishment, and excitement,” said sophomore outside hitter Dana Stephenson. “We always tease Nev (Djordjevic) about how she celebrates after big plays, and it’s just that instant rush. You can’t even control what you’re doing, and sometimes we make fools of ourselves.”

“(A big kill) gets everyone fired up, and brings back the energy if it’s lost,” said Djordjevic.

The Block

Of course, even the biggest hits don’t always touch the floor. There are, in fact, many points during a match when the ball is hit right back in the face of a hitter. Just as important as the spike in volleyball is the block — a play that defends the spike.

Just like hitting, blocking is an art that can be perfected only by experience. Stephenson knows this firsthand, as the Ducks’ defense has relied upon her growth as a blocker.

“Your eyes go from the ball to the setter to the ball to the hitter,” said Stephenson. “It’s really just about seeing where the ball is, but also getting there with your feet.”

Of course, anticipating where the ball is going after it leaves the setter’s hands is easier said than done. It can be tempting to guess where the ball is going ahead of time, and Stephenson has been trying to shake that habit.

“That’s what I think is difficult — trying to read the setter to know where she’s going to put the ball, but not guessing,” said Stephenson. “That’s what I’ve had problems with, because if you get tricked in Pac-10 play, you’re probably not going to be there for the block.”

If a blocker can manage to perfect their craft, they can have a devastating effect upon a match. After all, nothing shakes an opposing team’s confidence like having a spike stuffed right back in their face.

“The biggest momentum changer in volleyball is the block, without question,” said Moore. “If you can stop somebody from putting the ball on the floor, it’s huge.”

“To see that hitter think they’re going to have this awesome kill and just take it away, that’s an amazing feeling,” said Stephenson. “You can just shut someone down. They can be on fire and scoring every point for the other team and you block them a few times, and you take them out.”

Enesi’s hand meets the ball, and it sears toward the floor with blazing speed. No one even has a chance to return it, and it bounces off the court with such force that it flies into the stands.

The crowd erupts in cheers, and the team gathers for a quick celebratory hug. A man in the crowd marvels that it’s the hardest he’s ever seen someone hit the ball. Hearing this, Moore smiles, knowing that there was so much more to that play than what met the eye.

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