Warriors face big Waves
BY Stephen Tsai
To play for Pepperdine's volleyball team, outside hitter Cory Riecks mused, "one of the requirements is to be able to walk up and down that hill (on campus). It's a big hill."
Indeed, both the Malibu, Calif., school — which offers a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean — and its volleyball program are synonymous with height.
"They always have tall teams," Hawai'i head coach Charlie Wade said, adding that Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy "knows what he's looking for, the type of players he wants. They have a look to them, for sure. And they're always tall."
It is why the Warriors, to be sure, face a tall challenge when they host the Waves tonight in the opening round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. First serve is at about 7:05 p.m. in the Stan Sheriff Center.
Not only is their average hitter 6 feet 6 1/2, but the Waves construct active blocks that ease the pressure on the back-row defenders, and induce offensive hic-cups from opponents searching for rhythm.
The Waves "always had good blocking teams because of the techniques they teach and how big they are," UH left-side hitter Joshua Walker said. "If you're big and physical all the way across the front row, it's going to be a lot easier to get blocks."
The Waves spend a significant portion of each practice working on block defense or blocking lines.
"In this league, everybody can hit," Pepperdine opposite attacker Maurice Torres said. "Everybody can see the block. To be a good blocking team is key. You can't let the other team put down balls all night. We try to work on our block during practices."
Because their blockers can reach high over the net, opposing hitters have difficulty finding daylight on hard-cut shots.
The Waves also have set a goal of trying to touch every opposing spike. Tipped shots are speed bumps for primary passers J.D. Schleppenbach and Sean Grubbs.
"Getting touches is a big part," Torres said. "We're not going to have 50 digs a game, but if we can touch three out of 10, then that's a good night. We don't need to get blocks. We have to get touches to keep the play alive."
The Waves' strategy was developed partly by design, partly by necessity. Because of the price of tuition and fees — an average of $37,800 a year — Dunphy is limited in his recruiting. Pepperdine, like all Division I men's volleyball programs, must spread the financial equivalent of 4.5 scholarships. Dunphy decided the risk/reward ratio favors recruiting tall players.
"He's a great coach," Riecks said. "He can take tall players and turn them into volleyball guys. We've taken advantage of that."
The conditioning program also has provided a boost. Torres, who is 6 feet 7, can touch 11 feet 9. Riecks, also 6-7, can touch 11-10.
"It's not only about size, but that plays a big part," Torres said. "We have a lot of height, which we do use to our advantage, but we have a lot of skill players, as well."
For the Warriors, the counter-strategy is this: be steady in the serve-and-pass phase.
The Warriors need tough serves to take away the Waves' quick-middle attack. If the Waves cannot deliver passes near the net, then Kasey Krider might be forced into making predicatable sets.
"The key is to receive and serve," Dunphy said.
Nejc Zemljak has been the Warriors' most effective server. Off a four-step approach, Zemljak has a serving repertoire of jump, short and knuckleball -floater. The Warriors score points about 35 percent of the time he is serving.
"Nejc has absolutely won games by himself," Wade said. "He will go back to the service line, and we've seen it multiple times, and he'll get five in a row, and we'll win the game."
It is why Wade set the rotation so Zemljak opens as the server, with middle blocker Matt "Dragon" Rawson and high-jumpers Walker and Jonas Umlauft in the front row. Walker can touch 11 feet 7 1/2; Umlauft can touch 11-6.
"We want Nejc to be our leadoff hitter," Wade said. "It gives him more times through the batting order."
The Warriors, like the Waves, can help their cause with accurate passes. Left-side hitter Steven Hunt and libero Ric Cervantes are the Warriors' best passers, but opposing servers have been targeting Walker.
Walker welcomes the challenge; in MPSF matches this year, he has received 95 percent of his serves without fault.
If the passers can feed Zemljak, it will provide the threat of a middle attack, which, in turn, will create more one-on-one situations for Walker and Umlauft. Walker is a threat from the front left and off quick sets to the middle of the back row. Umlauft can score from the front right and back right.
"Because we have a lot of attackers, it makes it hard (for the block) to focus on a few," Umlauft said.
Of the improved connection with Umlauft, who is hitting .336 in the past eight matches, Zemljak said: "We've had a lot of time to build it up to where we are now."
The Waves arrived in town Thursday night. They practiced for 2 1/2 hours yesterday, and have a pass-and-serve session scheduled for today.
The Warriors spent the week working on fundamentals.
"We're working on little details." Zemljak said. We're ready. It's not like we're re-inventing volleyball right now."