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Friday, September 19, 2014         

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UH attackers can turn bad into good

UC Irvine's coach enters today's playoff saying the Warriors are predictable in being unpredictable

By Stephen Tsai

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In what should be regarded as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation treaty, each men's volleyball team has access to raw footage of every league match.

The footage can be edited and classified, allowing a coach, at the double-click of a computer mouse, to access video cutups of specific situations and rotations of each opponent.

In preparation for tonight's MPSF playoff match against Hawaii in the Crawford Court, UC Irvine head coach John Speraw and his staff have studied hours of videos of the Warriors. All of which can be symbolized with a question mark. Speraw acknowledges the Warriors are predictable in being unpredictable.

Volleyball, at its most basic, is this: Accurate passes lead to good sets that lead to favorable hitting opportunities. The pulled string that unravels that sequence is a tough serve. And the Anteaters, with a rotation of five jump-servers, are very good at being disruptive.

But the Warriors "can do so much in bad situations," Speraw said. "That's what makes them so difficult to defend. With most teams, you serve tough to get them out of system, and you're at an advantage. Against (the Warriors), you can serve tough and get them out of system, and it doesn't slow them down. That's the big challenge. The serve doesn't necessarily give you a big advantage as it does against other teams. They're such a good out-of-system team."

The reasons are twofold. Good passes give the setter the option of feeding the middle attackers. But the Warriors are a perimeter-dominant team. Only 14 percent of the swings, an average of four per set, are taken by the middles. Off-the-mark passes have minimal effect on the Warriors' strategy.

What's more, left-side hitter Joshua Walker and opposite Jonas Umlauft can attack from multiple points. Umlauft is effective from both front corners and the back right. Walker can hit from the front corners, back left and pipe sets — both quick or high — to the middle of the back row. The versatility means Walker and Umlauft are both options on trouble plays, even during rallies when someone other than Nejc Zemljak has to set.

"Everything is feeling good right now," said Walker, whose 1,420 career kills is second-best among Warriors since rally scoring was implemented in 2001.

Umlauft leads the nation with 5.55 kills per set.

The Warriors have found balance in their serving. Middle blocker Shane Welch has been productive by adding more of a push to his float serves. Outside hitter Steven Hunt was inconsistent with his jump-serves early in the season. Since going with a floater, he has served in at 100 percent in eight of 13 matches.

Eliminating missed serves "creates point-scoring chances," UH head coach Charlie Wade said. "If you serve it into the net, I always laugh, that's the one call the refs get right every time. That's been part of our success. We don't have all of the arms, all guys crushing serves, but we have some guys who create points in different ways."

The Anteaters also have had to customize their strategies. A few years ago, they mixed their serves, knowing that a 6-foot-9 middle and 6-7 outside hitter would produce more blocks. This season, with a smaller block, the Anteaters green-lit the rip-it serves.

"You have a certain personnel, so your focus is different," Speraw said.

The Anteaters run one of the nation's quickest pin offenses. For most of the season, opponents tried to slow the Anteaters with tough serves that led to high sets to pin hitters Carson Clark and Cory Yoder.

But Will Thomas, the third player to start at libero this year, has emerged as both an accurate passer and active defender.

"He can definitely pass and he can definitely dig," Speraw said. "He brings a lot of energy. He's positive. The guys like playing for him. He's a late comer, but he's earned the right to be on the court."






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