This is a series about volleyball written from the different perspective of each position on the court. I’ll write about setters, middles, left side hitters, right side hitters, liberos and coaches.
We’ll explore left side hitters (LH) with questions and answers from Jennifer Cave, standout player from Army West Point. Jennifer played left side hitter with fire and skill to make her one of the best Army has seen. I was lucky enough to play with her for two years, her on the outside and me feeding her the ball as the setter. She can give us some great insight to the position.
What were practices like for you?
Jennifer: I recall practices for me as an LH to include a ton of serve receive. Just you, another passer, a target (often an unforgiving, never-ending ball cart and coach) and everyone else serving at you. It was boring to watch, but intense focus to be in the drill as a shank was easy for everyone to see and quite unnerving as a passer.
As the LH, I knew the entire offense anchored off our serve receive. Yes, it’s true outsides get more sets, but sometimes that is the outside hitter’s own fault. Then the opposing middle blocker is camped out in front of you because you can’t pass. You, as the LH, are stuck with making chicken salad out of what might be the best set ever against the wall of China, and you brought the chicken to the recipe. But we can deal with that later.
I also recall spending a lot of time looking at blockers’ hands and hitter’s thumbs on defense. The left side player is across the court on defense from the opposing outside hitter and if they are going to hit around a block or tip, I do not want it landing on the floor near me. Once I learned the method of reading blockers’ hands and hitters’ thumbs, defense was much easier. Why does that matter? Passing leads to sets, sets lead to hitting and scoring. We can all admit, the less miles a setter has to go to chase a pass, the better the setter likes you. I have no idea if that last part is true, but deep down I felt awful when the setter had to chase down my pass.
What do you wish coaches had worked on more?
Jennifer: One thing I think gets lost on outside hitters is blocking. What about those left handed right side hitters across from you? What about that middle running that slide? And that pesky setter that likes to dump from time to time? All yours. If you can take the time to stop being a power hitter, and focus on blocking in those situations, and I mean really focus on trying to block the ball, you can single handedly help limit the opposing team’s offense. That weak right side hitter will see less sets if a block is there. That middle will stop running to a pin to hit if hands are there to at least slow the ball down. That setter isn’t going to take many glares from the coach for a blocked dump on a perfect pass. And this can all happen if you truly focus on blocking when up at the net.
What was key to your successes on the court?
The number one thing I did in serve receive to help me see the ball was to make sure my feet did not move once the ball made it the distance to the net. If it’s in front, move up, stop your feet, drop at your knees, bend forward, anything but move your feet if you want to keep the ball in play. If it’s behind you, move back, stop and J stroke it, set it, do anything but move those feet before contact. It will feel weird trying to learn it because you will feel like you have time on your hands and you should be moving, but learn to resist and sit and wait. This isn’t an excuse to not move to a serve, you just have to do it quickly and just stop.
Also, learning to hit with a block in front of me, a good one. I never saw it until I played on the West Coast in high school. Wow. I thought I was going to have to just hit it harder. My coach explained to me the art of tooling a block. Until then, I thought it was something only guy players did. I used it quite often in college. It was my go to option for a tight set. Why give their defense a chance to dig if I can end this play for a point and the ball stay on my side or go out of bounds? I loved using that.
I also had a tip to use as well, but I preferred to tool a block. It should be the second hitting tool a shorter hitter learns. I don’t recall a long streak of being dug up because I didn’t hit to the same place that often and because I could see where the defense was when I was swinging. So, if I was hitting line, I could see the setter sitting on the line for defense. I either hit at their head because that’s hard to pass or straight down if no block, hoping for a kill or overpass.
What did you do when a team was targeting you on serve receive?
Jennifer: That’s what I wanted. I knew I was a good passer and if I shanked it, I knew the odds of me shanking it again were almost nonexistent. I only knew that from the hours and hours of serve receive. Targeting never bothered me in serve receive.
I loved how involved the OH position was. You had to pass, you had to serve, you had to be the safety valve for the offense and find a way to score at times. If your passing was off, everyone suffered. I loved carrying the load.
Thanks Jennifer for the guest appearance in this article.