Perryville volleyball team gets taller with block style

Friday, November 2, 2012
Perryville's Brooke Hogard works on a blocking drill with head volleyball coach David Mirly during practice Tuesday, October 30, at Perryville High School. (ADAM VOGLER)

It was a couple weeks ago the Perryville volleyball team watched a video that changed their defense and their season.

"We've gotten so much better at defense within this last two weeks that it's obviously why we won the Lutheran South game," senior Natalie Gremaud said, referring to her team's 21-25, 25-23, 25-23 Class 3 quarterfinal win that earned it a spot in today's final four at the Show Me Center.

"We watched a video and we were all standing straight up on our covering," Gremaud said. "We were like halfway up. [Coach Dave Mirly] was like, ‘You can't do that,' so we watched the video and we were kind of realizing we can't do that. We have to be down and ready, so that helped us a lot, too."

The other players on a team "cover" an attacker by preparing to make a dig if the ball is blocked by the opposition.

"And we began to double block and triple block the middles so that took away angles for the middles, and then the other side of the defense knew it was coming to them because that was the only way the hitter could hit. And then we just been more aggressive, falling over everybody to get the ball over the net."

It was a couple years ago that Perryville overhauled the way the way it blocks opponents by introducing a technique called swing blocking.

"What swing blocking does is allows you to jump just a little bit higher, several inches," Mirly said. "And when you're this short several inches mean a lot."

Gremaud is the tallest listed player for Perryville at 5-10, but she admitted she's not that tall. Two other starters are listed at 5-9.

"We talked about before the season started -- we knew we were going to be short. We knew we were going to be little and we knew we had huge goals," Mirly said. "So we talked about and kind of developed the motto of, ‘It's how big you play.' It doesn't matter how short you are. It's how big you're going to play.

"Playing big means having the attitude that you're big, having the philosophy of no fear. You're going to dive on the ground. You don't care about how many bruises you get on your body, and you've got to get to the ball."

Gremaud said she introduced the idea of swing blocking to Mirly after learning the technique during her club season.

"I mentioned it to coach because I was like, ‘Coach, we are this tall,'" said Gremaud, making a motion to show how short she is. "We're not going to get many blocks if we just standardize block.' And he said ‘I don't know if I like that. We'll be in the net a lot.' I was like ‘OK, it's your team.' I just introduced it to him."

Eventually Mirly changed his mind and he started to teach the technique at the seniors' sophomore season.

"I'm pretty sure I fell down during it," said senior Lauren Buxton of her first attempt to swing block. "I was like, ‘Coach, this is the weirdest thing ever. How am I supposed to do this? I can't time it right.' I was like, ‘This is not going to work. I'm not ever going to get a block.' And this year has probably been my best year for blocking, and I know it's because of the swing blocks."

Using a traditional blocking technique, a player keeps her shoulders square and facing forward as she moves along the net before jumping straight up to reach her hands as high above and over the net as possible.

Swing blockers use an approach similar to an attacker. Instead of starting away from the net and moving forward, the blocker moves to the side with their shoulders opening up toward the side of the court then swings their body around in midair.

"We're able to get up so much higher," Buxton said. "We have become so much smarter with it. We know where the ball is going to be, how high we need to be, if we need to block angle or line -- we've pushed working on swing blocking so hard that it's just become second nature for us. I don't know if I could block regular anymore."

The move comes with risks. In addition to increasing the risk of touching the net, it takes more time for blockers to get into place, and that fraction of a second can make a difference when teams are running fast offenses.

It's a worthwhile risk for Perryville.

"As far as I know we're the only team that does that, I think," Gremaud said. "Maybe one or two people do it, but not the whole team. We're the only team that continuously does that, so that's kind of unique about us."

The goal of a blocker is not just to touch the ball, it is also to force opponents to hit it where teammates are waiting.

"Our blockers are taking away big sections of the court, and then we put our defense back there in the holes, where the hitters can hit it," Mirly said. "So in theory, if we put up a good block, they're either going to hit it into the blocker, or they're going to hit it right at one of our players."

That's where libero Libbi Schnurbusch, who has a team-high 197 digs this season, and the rest of the players on the back row come in.

"So when we do a good job of [blocking] it really makes the defense a lot easier because everything is covered on the court," Mirly said. "Now if we get a girl who's just a stud and hammers it so hard that we can't control, that's fine, too. Then we'll mix things up with our blocker to find out where she's hitting it and try to take that away from her."

The result of all this is a Perryville defense that is far more imposing than it appears it will be when the Pirates take the court, which leads to frustration for opponents.

"You see that, and the fact that we can keep the ball alive long enough to frustrate them, we're doing something really right on our side of the net," Gremaud said.

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