RICHMOND, Va. – Volleyball players say there’s a special emotion that comes from blocking an opposing hitter and halting the enemy’s offense with a demoralizing thud.
“You feel like you’re on top of the world. You feel strong,” says VCU freshman middle blocker Martina Samadan.
“I think that’s the most exciting way to get a point for me,” adds senior middle Jasmine Waters. “You just kind of feel like you shut down the other team.”
If that’s the case, it’s been a joyful season for the VCU Volleyball team. The 19-3 Rams lead the Atlantic 10 Conference and rank sixth nationally in blocks per set (3.13). They’ve outblocked their opponents 260-137 this year and have been outblocked in a match just two times. Samadan, a 6-foot-5 rookie from Croatia, ranks fourth in the country in blocks per set (1.64). With numbers like those, VCU should have smiles to spare.
VCU didn’t transform into the Great Wall of China overnight. It takes a lot of work to be this stingy.
When Coach James Finley arrived from Arizona Western in 2005, the VCU Volleyball program was a mess. The Rams were coming off a 6-21 season and hadn’t been relevant in years. In order to resurrect the program, Finley and his staff knew they’d have to recruit differently.
“One thing we evaluated was the size and athleticism of the team that we needed to grow as a program and compete at a higher level,” Finley said. “As we evaluated that, we made the decision we were going to go with more height.”
The caveat was that Finley would have to trade experience for athleticism. He took on raw and lightly recruited middle blockers like Ivana Rich, Kelsie Clegg and Waters and molded them into All-Conference standouts.
Blocking would become the Rams’ trademark. In the last seven seasons, VCU has ranked first or second in its league in blocking six times. Over that period, the Rams have ranked in the top 50 nationally on four occasions. While recruiting plays an important role in VCU’s blocking ability, it’s not the only reason the Rams have enjoyed success at the net.
Finley employs a blocking scheme that is as cerebral as it is dynamic. Players are taught to effectively read hitters and the opposing team’s setter, then adjust accordingly. It’s harder to teach, but with greater potential. And they teach it…a lot.
“Not that other teams don’t put in time for blocking, but we probably do more,” Finley says.
“We’re working hard during practice, especially on the block, so that’s the main reason we are so good.”
VCU’s blocking ability has other positive byproducts. It often causes teams to adjust their offense and operate outside their comfort zone.
“Blocking for us is another form of attacking,” says Finley. “It’s attacking their hitter instead of letting their hitter attack us. We create errors for the other team because they have to change their approach. They have to change their shot, what they normally do, because they can’t hit through our block. So, they’re having to go off-speed, hit at a different angle, and then that’s when people start making errors.”
VCU opponents are hitting .152 this season, tied for lowest in the A-10.
There’s also a mental element in play. Good blocking can frustrate hitters and rattle confidence. As the hitter suffers, the blocker’s confidence swells. Intimidation can be a game-changer. Former Ram Melissa Peterson used to go as far as to write “No Mercy” on her hands. When she raised her arms in the air, opposing hitters were greeted with Peterson’s personalized message. No current Ram has gone to such great lengths (so far) to psych out the opposition, but it’s clear that the mental aspects on both sides of the block can help decide a match.
“Hitters don’t go up as strong. They start tipping everywhere,” says Waters, who tied a school record with 157 blocks last season. “They lose their confidence completely. Even a strong hitter, if you block them two or three times, they’re not going to want to swing as hard. That makes defense for the back row a 1,000 times easier.”