It can be the most disheartening thing for an opposing team. They rip a jump-serve, have a float wiggle and dance enough to produce an out-of-system pass. An opportunity to score, get on a run. And then, just when you might think the NM State Aggies are out of system — well, they’re never really out of system, are they?
Because they’ll put it away, from basically anywhere.
Such has been the case for NM State this season as it’s gotten off to an 8-0 start in the Western Athletic Conference and leads the league by two games over second-place Grand Canyon and Kansas City. The Aggies (17-3) play host to fourth-place Utah Valley (8-12, 5-3) on Thursday.
Now, to be clear, before we move on any further, no 17-3 team that is undefeated in conference play is bad at passing. But when asked about anything NM State may need to shore up heading into the back half of the 2019 season, sophomore outside Savannah Davison, senior middle Megan Hart and coach Mike Jordan unanimously, immediately, pointed to serve receive.
And that’s coming from a team with, arguably, the best defensive stats in the nation.
“In the spring, after the graduation losses we had, I felt like we would be a team that would be a better out-of-system attacking team,” Jordan said. “We’ve had great serve-receive teams here, but this is not one of them.
“I felt like we had to be better at the out-of-system attacking and the choices we made. We spent a lot of time on that in the spring and a lot of time on it now.”
It’s slowly stabilizing, that serve-receive. Since the preseason, Jordan has requested his players to ask themselves two questions each day: How can I make myself better, and how can I make the team better?
After getting swept by Portland in early September, in which the Pilots recorded 12 aces to the Aggies’ one, the answer to those questions was quite simple: Pass the ball a little cleaner.
“They served the heck out of it,” Jordan said. “It was impressive what they did at the service line. We knew coming in that the passing part of the game would be a question mark and it’s reared its head a few times. Usually, we’ve been able to right the ship during a match, that time we couldn’t. We were bad the whole match.”
It’s almost a tad frightening that, even with a serve-receive game that occasionally, as Jordan said, rears its head, the Aggies are still hitting .267, ranked No. 24 in the country. It begs the question: Just how efficient could this team be if they pass a little cleaner?
“The sky’s the limit,” said Davison, a 5-foot-10 sophomore from Toronto who leads the team with 238 kills (3.45/set). “We can really dominate some games. We’re definitely someone not to mess with. Even blocking, our numbers have been unreal. If we get (serve receive) down and we hold to our numbers, we can really stop some good teams.”
Jordan, in his 22nd year at the helm of the school in Las Cruces, New Mexico, knew, coming in, that his team would have no problem putting the ball away, good pass or not. Not with Hart, a 6-5 senior from Kelowna, British Columbia, coming out of the middle. She’s second to Davison in kills with 185 (2.72/set) and is hitting .421. Hart’s also second on the team in blocks with 74, 11 solo.
Cat Kelly might be undersized at 5-8, but the sophomore from Albuquerque has 175 kills and is second only to Davison (168) in digs with 141.
Julianna Salanoa, a 6-foot junior from Olympia, Washington, has 127 kills and leads the team with 91 blocks, eight solo.
All of those weapons are at the disposal of setters Natalie Mikels, a junior from Jenks, Oklahoma, and Krysten Garrison, a sophomore from Piedmont, Missouri, who are averaging a combined 10.489 assists an 3.16 digs per set.
Jordan sees Davison making smarter decisions, simply deciding to put pressure on the opposing team rather than trying for an overaggressive, low-percentage swing. He sees his defense limiting opposing teams to .098, the lowest hitting percentage in the nation, kudos to 209 total blocks, ninth in the country.
“We’ve got some length, certainly,” the coach said. “We’re trusting our block. We feel like if we can just put some pressure to pass it a little bit off the net our block is going to do a good job slowing it up.”
The improvement from early losses to Portland, Arizona and Sacramento State, all within a week, is tangible. Much of that is due to the team holding one another accountable for both the individual and the team.
“There’s always different things,” Hart said, with the main focus being winning the serve and pass game within the game.
Win that, and, as Davison says, “we’re looking to put down some big points in shorter rallies.”