Edited by Mike Schlegel, photos by Robert Beck
If you don’t have the gift of a 40-inch vertical, don’t try to muscle your opponents. These nine shots may not make the highlight film, but they’ll get you kills.
There are two primary rules of hitting if you’re not blessed with a 40-inch vertical: 1. Hit most balls within a three-foot band of the sidelines or end line, and 2. Don’t make errors. The first thing you have to abandon is the natural tendency to want to hit the ball hard and low to the tape in hopes of the big bounce.
Leave that to the truly big bangers. Work at hitting the hall deep cross court and deep down the line. Always think about where the other team plays defense and where the seams are. It’s amazing how many kills you can get when players have to guess whether your hit is in our out because it’s close to the end line.
Instead of big bounces, be content counting your strategically placed kills. As far as hitting errors go, discipline yourself to have a mental mindset of never giving your opponents any free points by hitting out of bounds. Period. Challenge the opposing blockers to block you; don’t let them off the hook by your mis-play. If you can use both of these tips in your hitting, you can improve rapidly in a fairly short period of time.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to describe some shots that you can use when you’re in difficult situations. But remember, the advantage rests with the smart hitter 99 percent of the time. Almost every block has a weak point or a flaw, and exploiting that is what this article is all about. You’ll need to work during practice at hitting all types of shots to all areas of the court. You never know when that hole will open up or that blocker will give you an opening. Develop an off-speed shot and a three-quarter-speed shot. Experiment with different spins on the ball, and play with variations in your angle of approach. Always give the block something to think about. Try not to be predictable. But at the same time, make sure you consistently hit the ball in the court.
- THE TEXTBOOK TOOL
This first situation is hitting against a well formed block. This is especially good when you’re swinging for points. The set is dying inside, but you have time to make a big step, close and get under the ball. This is the classic tool shot off the outside hand. Strike the ball a little right of center but not too far—you don’t want side spin to take the ball out of bounds if you miss—and snap the ball off the two outside fingers of the outside blocker’s hand. A common error on this ball is to let it drop and hit this shot low to the tape. Trust me, it won’t work. Ricci Luyties taught me that in ’86 for about two straight weeks. Learn to hit it off that outside finger high and hard. There won’t be a more valuable shot in your repertoire.
- FLAT, OVER, AND OUT.
The second situation is against a well formed block that is scaling your line but is also low to the net, cutting off your sharp, cross-court shot. When this happens, see if you can loosen up the block a bit by blasting a flat hit off the top of the block the way I’m doing here. But remember, if the ball misses the block, it probably will sail out of bounds. So you need to be accurate. This has two likely outcomes, both positive. Either you execute the shot for a side-out, or the opponent blocks the ball back in to your court, and it is easily recovered. Either way, this shot will often cause the blockers to start reaching. Which brings me to the next shot.
- SHARP SHOOT THE DRIFTER
On a shooting set to the outside, middle blockers can be late and reaching. This is the perfect time to hit a “wrist away” shot sharp cross-court as I’m doing here. Also, the deep cross court can be open in addition to the high, seam shot. The problem some hitters get into here is trying to hit the ball too shallow in the court. I wish I had a dollar for every time a hitter thought he had Craig Buck beat, tried to hit straight down, and Buck, somehow, reached and got a soft block out of it. Stay safe. Hit deep cross-court or sharp inside the middle blocker; it’s the percentage way to go.
- THE CHESTER
This example is with a well formed block when the set is a little tight and you’ve been working the block high all night. Get to the ball quickly, get on top of it and snap it low and under the block. Here, speed and angle of trajectory are everything. Also, this isn’t the shot to use against blockers who are fresh and are sealing the net properly. But late in a match, when blockers start to get a little lazy, you can beat the block by speeding up your arm-swing and surprising them with a hard-driven, low to the tape dribbler off their chest. The key with this shot is a quick arm, so try it with less than a full arm-swing.
- THE CHIP SHOT
Another situation that you might find yourself in once in a while is when you’re hitting against a very big block, and the set is drifting outside the antenna. When this happens, try this shot that earned while watching Dave Saunders consistently side-out against a high-jumping Cuban team. Chip the ball off the outside elbow of the line blocker. This is shot that’s hit fairly low to the tape and with a good amount of pace. Also, if you can hesitate for a split-second before contacting the ball, you’ll give the block more time to penetrate the net, which enlarges your target: the outside elbow. Stay alert on this one. Often, a well-executed shot will carom quickly in your direction, and you’d better be very, very good at dodge-ball.
- RIGHT SIDE, INSIDE OUT
From the right side, the tool off the outside hand is a little more difficult. (At least for right-handed players.) One key is that you work with your setter to consistently push the ball out to the antenna. Otherwise, when you try this shot, you’ll end up hitting directly into the meat of the block with not-so-good results. You must let the ball drift past your mid-section. Then, strike it a little left of center, and hit a wrist-away type of shot. Practice hitting against a wall, but face it with your right side. This will help you get the feel of hitting this shot. Once again, and I hate to be redundant, you can’t let the ball drop and then try to blast low to the tape. You must pick it off at the highest point possible to have the best angles for attacking.
- RIGHT SIDE HEATER
This brings me to the sharp cross court hit from the right side. Internationally, you better have an awfully quick armswing to get away with this one because, as I learned from Craig Buck and Steve Timmons in my early days with the U.S. national team, this shot has a tendency to come right back in your face. Consequently, I rarely hit sharp in international play. But at the high school and college levels, this shot is a necessity. If you’ll notice in the photos, the ball crosses very low to the net. You need to contact it on the outside and snap through it. Think of wrapping your hand quickly around the right side of the ball. This shot usually needs to have a lot of heat on it. I never try to hit it unless I’ve set the blockers up by hitting quite a bit of line and seam. This seems to open up the sharp angles just in case the set leaves me no other option.
- THE POWER DINK
Another good shot to have when you’re facing a well formed block is the open-handed push dink to the deep middle. The U.S.’s Scott Fortune is one of the best at using this shot. He disguises it beautifully and has the control to put the ball consistently within a three-foot by three-foot square deep in the court. The placement and trajectory of this shot are the keys. Try to up-tip the ball with as little arc as possible in a horizontal-to-downward trajectory. Also, place it deep enough so the wing diggers feel it is the middle back defender’s responsibility. Don’t confuse this with the lollipop dink. This is an offensive shot that you can use to give the defense a new look now and then.
- THE PLAYBACK
The last shot is one I’ve tried to pick up from Karch Kiraly, who used it to frustrate big blockers around the world for years. It’s called the playback roll shot off the block. It’s an off-speed roll shot that you purposefully hit into the top of the block. Try using a little more top-spin than usual. This, in theory, seems to make the ball hang up longer, giving your teammates a little more time to make a good cover. Nothing is more aggravating for blockers than having to run from one side of the court to the other making good blocks that the other team easily covers. Usually, after you’ve made the block set up more than once, they’ll tend to make some other mistake which, of course, you’ll be alert enough to take advantage of by using other trouble shots.