Ball movement critical to net success for Lady Panthers

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By Scott Akanewich

Volleyball is a game of momentum and nothing creates momentum on the court like proper ball movement.

However, for that to happen, everyone must be constantly on the same page – from the back row where the dirty work of digs is done to the setters and finally to the hitters up front. Everything over the course of those three passes must be pinpointed in order for the entire operation to work like a well-oiled machine with the result being a cacophony of kills, resulting in victory.

For the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill so far this season, that kind of precision has resulted in a 14-7 start to the new campaign, including a second-place showing at the Bastrop tournament last weekend.

At the heart of the action has been sophomore setter Emma Becker, who transferred from Hutto following her freshman season with the Hippos when her family moved to the Liberty Hill area.

Suffice to say, the Orange-and-Black’s loss has been the Purple-and-Gold’s gain, as Becker has teamed up with fellow second-year setter Emma Parsons to provide a prolific pipeline of service in the form of picture-perfect assists.

According to Becker, her family’s move was predicated on having space to spread out.

“We’ve been looking for a place to be able to have some land,” said Becker. “So, that way, we could have our animals.”

Fitting, as Becker has been somewhat of an animal on the court so far this season, perhaps the Lady Panthers’ most consistent all-around performer, racking up digs, assists and kills at an alarming rate.

But, it’s her role as setter that sets her apart, floating passes in to the wheelhouses of the hitters.

Upon her arrival at Liberty Hill, she had an idea of what to expect, she said.

“I had already known some people here, so I had an idea it was going to be different,” said Becker.

Apparently, in a good way.

The dynamic mid-court duo of Becker and Parsons has clicked exquisitely and in doing so, has provided a powerful one-two punch, said head Coach Gretchen Peterson.

“Using two setters allows us to have three hitters on the front row at all times,” she said. “Both bring so much to the table and compliment each other. The hitters are doing a great job of using both and seem to be comfortable with whomever is running the floor. Both Emmas are bringing the best out of one another and that’s a great blessing to have.”

Becker said communication is critical in producing an end product that results in a kill.

“It’s all about the chemistry and how good you can connect with your hitters,” she said. “Communication really matters – hitters will usually talk to you and tell you where they want the ball.”

Ironically, Becker began her volleyball career on the other end of the supply line as an outside hitter, but switched positions a couple years ago and hasn’t looked back since, truly embracing her role in wreaking havoc on opposing defenses.

“The switch never really bothered me because I knew all along I was helping the team,” said Becker. “When a hitter gets a kill, you know you did something right.”

Peterson realizes the process of building that all-important chemistry is sometimes ongoing.

“They have to get to know what each other’s tendencies are, likes and dislikes in a volleyball sense,” she said. “Volleyball is based on communication and trusting each other – everyone has a role and is responsible for something on every play. The more court time we get, the more time we have to work on that and make it better – that’s what’s great about these early tournaments and the number of games – we get lots of opportunities to build that chemistry. It takes time and right now we have that. The preseason is great for working out and getting to know the ins and outs of each hitter. The setter-hitter relationship is a work in progress right now, but moving in the right direction. They’re getting more and more comfortable with each other every time we step on the court. It’s really cool to watch that develop.”

Ashley Nelson is one of the front-line beneficiaries of the smooth passes and has taken advantage so far this fall, including a season-high 13 kills in a 2-0 (25-20, 25-19) quarterfinal victory over Victoria West in Bastrop and the senior smasher is enjoying life at the net.

“It’s been really good, definitely better than last year,” Nelson said. “Our serve-receive has been good, we’re passing it fast and we’re really connecting with our setters.”

Nelson has also learned when to take a bit off her shots, depending on what the situation calls for, she said.

“Sometimes, you just hit more shots instead of hitting everyone as hard as you can,” Nelson said. “I probably didn’t catch onto that until I was about 15, as far as tipping the ball.”

Speaking of which, that’s something her squad still needs to work on, said Peterson.

“Tipping at times can really trip us up and this weekend in particular, serve-receive gave us trouble and it led to giving up long runs,” she said. “In some cases, we were worked through it and came back, in others we didn’t. But, that’s part of the confidence and composure we’re learning to develop right now.”

Of course, service begins on the back line, which is where sophomore libero Haley Kuhlmann resides and for her, constantly keeping a positive mental approach is just as important as physical precision, she said.

“You have to start with a good mindset and have confidence in yourself,” said Kuhlmann. “You have to want to be on the court at all times and get the ball.”

Kuhlmann is another front-line transplant, having played outside hitter on the junior varsity squad last year before making the jump to varsity this season and with it, a position change she welcomed, she said.

“I knew coming onto varsity, I could be a good passer,” said Kuhlmann. “Also, as a libero, I’m always on the court, which I like. You have to be everywhere at once.”

Initially, Kuhlmann was apprehensive about the switch to the different-colored shirt, she said.

“I was actually kind of scared at first,” said Kuhlmann. “But, I think I’m progressing and it’s been really good for me and the team.”

Peterson said Kuhlmann has hit the ground running in her new surroundings on the court.”

“It’s a new position for her, but she’s picking it up nicely — all of the girls are,” she said. “Haley is extremely athletic and reads things well — she also has the ability to change the game with her energy and her hustle. She can really be the spark on the court we need.” 

As a coach on the sidelines, Peterson keeps close track of the pulse of her squad as a match unfolds, then reacts accordingly.

“For this team, if our mental focus and intensity isn’t there, we’ll struggle early,” she said. “We can come back from a few mistakes and points, but if we start to sulk and drop our heads, it’s way tougher for us. They have to be able to move on and press through and they’ve been doing much better about that.”

Sometimes, there can be a disconnect somewhere along the line, which disrupts the entire production line, but that is when adjustments must be made in the middle of matches, said Peterson.

“There is always a chance to better the ball. If the first touch is off, then the next two need to try to make that a better ball, so we can still get a high-percentage shot,” she said. “Sometimes, working through the not-so-perfect starts and figuring out a way to win the point anyway is just as important as a play that was perfect from the start.”

Of course as usual, practice makes perfect and the Lady Panthers are no different.

“We pass a ton in practice, that’s our main focus and will continue to be,” said Peterson. “We have to improve on that every day, in defense and serve-receive. Serving aggressively and consistently has to become better for us too.”

Despite her success as a setter, Becker still loves to wind up for a kill, she said.

“I like hitting better because it’s more fun,” said Becker. “But, I think I’m much better at setting. I want to connect with my hitters on every play. I measure how I do by how many kills my hitters get.”

Peterson said one good way to avoid developing bad habits on the court is to recognize them and cut them off at the pass before they become a problem.

“We have lots of little things that have to become big things on our radar – those missed serves become big things, those steps we don’t always take on defense, or those times we don’t close the block completely – become big problems if we don’t do them right and all the time,” she said. “Just because we can get away with doing them that way, doesn’t mean we should. We want to hold ourselves to high standards in every aspect of our game.”

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