After completing the spring semester of training and play dates, head volleyball coach Aaron Smith shares his thoughts on the Cavaliers and their progression.
How do you evaluate success in the spring season?
Spring is interesting because your seniors aren’t usually training with you and your roster is typically a bit smaller. Some players are sometimes recovering from injuries and you’re not pushing them quite as hard, but we were pretty fortunate this spring to have a pretty good roster. So, we went into spring kind of setting a few specific boulders is what we called them for each player to really focus on this spring. Just saying “this is an area that we’ve recognized and if you can get better, just a little bit, at this area it’s going to help your overall game.”
It kind of raised an awareness to how serious we felt about some of the players’ weaknesses, because typically it was an area that wasn’t a strength but was one we just really needed to make a little better. The players really grasped hold of that concept, the boulder concept, and every practice it was them celebrating an opportunity for someone to make good progress with their boulders. We measured our success a lot just based on some individual gains that we saw. I really could probably pick out three or four who really got tremendously better at their boulder.
As a team, we established a little bit more of an identity of what we’re going to be come fall and because we had such a large group returning, we were able to do that. With five newcomers coming in, obviously we’ll have a little different look and feel, but I think we really established a lot of good systems and had individuals step up this spring to show the staff and their teammates they are ready to take on a bigger role this fall.
What areas do you feel like the team improved in the most?
How you are going to score points is one of the first things you think about as a coach. The last two years, offensively, we haven’t had as many options to score points, specifically from an attacking standpoint. We’ve been a little bit young, had some players that have been inconsistent, so I think that’s the biggest area that stood out to me. We have options, we have different weapons.
Sarah Billiard is someone who has taken a lot of swings these last two years and we’ll look for her to do that this coming fall, but she’s got a lot of help with Jelena [Novakovic], Grace [Turner] and Milla [Ciprian]. Chino [Anukwuem] made some really good strides offensively. Christine Jarman is someone who wasn’t a huge contributor last year, particularly in the front row, but she’s made tremendous strides. My biggest takeaway is we are not relying on one or two people to carry the load offensively, we’ve got five or six who could be the go-to hitter on any given day.
Our serve-receive also showed a lot of improvement with Kelsey Miller returning to the libero position and Alex Spencer moving into more of a libero position. She’s made significant strides as well and could find herself in that libero position down the road if she continues to make those kind of improvements she did in spring. Kristen Leland is another player who made a lot of strides and her teammates noticed and made sure to let me know how much she’s improved. Between those three and our outside hitters who handle the load passing, I don’t know that I’d say we’re the best passing team, but it won’t be as big of a weakness as it has been.
How much do you use the spring play dates to experiment with lineups and different systems?
Because we return so many players, we had a pretty good idea of how we wanted to go into the spring. We went into probably 70 percent of our spring competitions with a lineup that we could realistically see next fall. Then the other 30 percent of the time we were like “hey, let’s give this a try and see what comes of it,” let’s let this person play a little bit outside of her comfort zone or give this person an opportunity to show us something that maybe we haven’t seen.
There’s definitely that opportunity in the spring. I think a light-bulb moment for our group came pretty early in the spring. In the past we’d kind of get to the 20-point mark and maybe falter or give up a few points, we’d have a lead, give it up and then lose the set. Down at Virginia Beach, we found ourselves in about three games where we would get to 20 with a lead, give up two or three points and go down but would find a way to go on a three-or-four point run of our own to win. That hit home with a lot of the players, particularly upper classmen, who had been in that position before and had that here we go again feeling. We found the toughness to go back on a run of our own, whether it was on the service line, a big block or dig, a big transition swing.
How important can a spring be for a young roster?
For the first-year group, all three of them were just so focused. Every class kind of takes on a personality and those three have a “what do I have to do to get better” mentality. That has been really cool to see, to establish that within a program. Those three are going to continue to set an example for four years.
They had a lot of work to do. Milla and Grace, specifically, played a pretty big role once they got settled in last year. They are a big reason why we feel so strongly about going into next fall. All three of them showed significant gains and focused on their individual goals but are team-oriented as well. They all will do whatever we need them to do whether it’s take 50 swings or sit on the bench this game.
That first-year group made huge strides and the second-year group is a large portion of our production as well and they all made really good strides. You start hitting that point heading into your third and fourth year where you really look to see where you can get better. That boulder opportunity really gave them something specific to work on, even for the third and fourth years that have really established a good quality of play.
You’ve mentioned Christine Jarman, what has clicked for her after transferring in last year?
The easy answer is that she joined the program late in the summer and just didn’t quite figure it out until spring. She needed a semester, a fall, to get through and get comfortable. The best answer really is she has just worked her butt off, in the fall and in the spring. She’s had a lot more opportunity in the spring, a chance to just relax, play loose and make some mistakes.
She just has embraced every opportunity she’s had whether it’s at practice or against another opponent with these play dates we’ve had. She approaches the gym every day thinking “how can I make the team better, how can I work harder than yesterday and how can I make my teammates better?” She comes in with a great attitude and physically, she’s very strong, works very hard at putting her body in the best shape she can. It’s really paid off.
Last year she played outside, DS, right side and this year we’ve been able to focus in on her mostly playing outside hitter. She’s gotten a lot more comfortable with the tempo of the offense that we’re running, where it was really something she wasn’t comfortable with in the fall. So, her timing and speed is better and that’s helped her confidence. Her teammates have definitely noticed as well and have made a lot of comments to me about how much better she has gotten. We’re really happy with her development.