As the 2017 playoffs loom, the Notre Dame Preparatory volleyball team will look to ride an increased hitting effort in hopes of putting together a deep playoff run.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association announced its automatic qualifiers for the playoffs Wednesday and NDP made the cut. Automatic qualifiers will play Oct. 31 after the play-in matches have concluded.
Heading into the postseason, the Saints are 23–14, which includes tournament play, with a region record of 7–1.
Specifically, NDP is 9–3 in October and during that stretch, has shown an increase in its hitting.
According to statistics on maxpreps.com, the Saints have averaged almost 13 kills per set in October as opposed to the about 10 kills per set average for the rest of the season.
Not only have kills risen but total attempts have too by about five per set. Attacking errors saw a slight increase, about half an error per set.
As a whole, Notre Dame Prep ranks among the top of 5A in several hitting categories such as total kills, attempts and kills per set.
Notre Dame Prep Head Coach Sara Fox said she believes the improvement has come because the team has settled into its lineup and the setters have improved at putting up balls for the hitters.
“I think that getting more consistent allows our hitters to really exploit the block, which is a huge difference,” she said.
The Saints’ assists statistics reflect Fox’s assessment. Prior to October, NDP averaged just under 10 assists per set but dialed that average up to about 12 throughout October.
Ball handling errors have slightly decreased in October as opposed to the rest of the season.
Middle blocker Nicole Shuhandler said the team’s hitting performance in October is a manifestation of how the setters and hitters have progressed over the season.
“The setters and the hitters have connected tremendously through our hard work at practice and throughout games,” she said.
While Fox said she is happy with the trajectory of the team’s hitting, she still wants more.
In order to get to her vision, Fox said she wants to see her team “terminate” the ball to score.
“Not really trying to just put the ball in play but really finish and terminate on more balls,” she said.
Outside hitter Sophie Sydenham said to really finish points, hitters need to go up, focus and hit with a purpose.
The Saints showed this at times during Tuesday’s 3–0 win over Arcadia High School. Several times, hitters would rise for a hit and smack it down authoritatively.
Other times, there were softer hits that allowed the Titans to get a rally going.
Sydenham said reading the defense is also a key to hitting better because hitters can find the hole in the defense and send a ball to it.
If NDP can improve on some of these aspects, Sydenham said the future is bright.
“We haven’t reached that point where we know that’s the best we can possibly hit and that’s exciting for me because I know that that’s coming,” she said.
To maintain that bright future heading into the postseason, Fox said the Saints will need to be more consistent.
Throughout October, the team regularly posted some of its highest kills per set averages. However, NDP also had matches where it tallied an average of five or six errors per set.
This was the case during the Saints’ most recent loss, a 3–0 defeat at the hands of Chaparral High School Monday. NDP committed 20 attacking errors in three sets.
“We’ve definitely had awesome glimpses of exactly what we want. It’s definitely there,” Fox said. “To say that we’ve done it consistently, I would say that’s a no so far.”
There are many aspects that make a volleyball team successful. A solid offense through hitting is certainly a way to find success.
Fox said, however, it is not the most important way for a team to find success.
She said hitting is the end product of a lot of other mechanics in the game. Some of those mechanics include serve receiving, defense and passing.
When those aspects all work together to create a system, a team can find success in its hitters, Fox said.
“To do that over and over again is the difference between a team that has one kid with a big arm and a kid who really performs night after night,” she said. “It’s the kid who’s going to work hard in transition.”
With the playoffs just days away, Notre Dame Prep will be looking for its first state championship since 2015. Last year, the Saints suffered a quarterfinal loss to Sunnyslope High School.
In order to make a deep run in the playoffs, NDP will have to navigate a sea of top-ranked opponents including Chaparral, Campo Verde, Sunnyslope and Queen Creek, among others.
The Saints will aim to continue their upward hitting trend, which Shuhandler said is a big part of the team’s identity.
Sydenham said not only is hitting a team aspect but it’s also some of the players’ favorite part of the game because it results in points but also is a boost of energy.
From a coaching perspective, Fox said the Saints are confident moving forward but that doesn’t mean they are complacent.
“We want to make sure we do a good job in practice,” she said. “If we do a good job in practice, then I think we’ll continue to be confident in the playoffs so I think they need to have their minds right going into that.”