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Rotation 3: Middle Blockers

Aug. 17, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

In every sport there’s a position that’s kind of taken for granted but is absolutely vital for team success.

In volleyball that position is middle blocker. It’s kind of the glue position and, as the name suggests, is in the middle of everything — until it comes to receiving credit, that is.

“It’s just kind of what you accept when you become a middle,” said sophomore Sydney Wilson, Georgia Tech’s leading blocker last season. “You work hard, you go to the pins, help block, you are always up in transition. You may not always get set as much [credit] as an outside but it’s challenging, it’s fun.”

“I like to think that we’re kind of working behind the curtain and helping the team out as a whole,” said junior Lauren Pitz. “I think middle blocker is a position that affects a lot of people on the team. You have to set the block for the passers, you need to be up to be able to pull the blockers from the other team so your hitters can have a good chance to swing. So it’s definitely more of a team-oriented position.”

It’s a good thing Wilson, Pitz, fellow junior Annika Van Gunst and freshman Lauren Frerking find it fun because the position can be a real challenge.

“I think the middle position is one of the hardest positions to adjust as you transition from club, high school to college,” said Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Michelle Collier. “The game is just so much faster, you’ve got so much more that you need to worry about.”

“It is a lot about the speed,” said Van Gunst. “The game is taken up a notch, especially at this level, playing in the ACC, in such a great conference. You have to work hard, work on your speed, work on your timing, basically raise your game and every aspect of it up a notch.”

Wilson raised her game plenty and thrived in the position during her freshman season. The 6-2 Wilson, from Fayetteville, Ga., stepped in as a freshman and stepped up. One of three Jackets to play and start all 31 matches (Annika Van Gunst and twin sister, OH Teegan were the others) Wilson led the team with 104 blocks (31 more than her nearest teammate, Pitz), 15 solos (two more than Teegan), and .92 blocks per set in 113 matches.

In the process she earned the respect of her coaches and teammates.

“Sydney did a great job,” said Collier. “She had to play all last year as a freshman and she did a wonderful job holding her own. I think she’s feeling a lot more confident, she understands the game a lot better, she’s gotten a lot stronger this spring, so she’s going to be a physical player for us and a big part of our offense.”

“Middle block is not an easy position to play at all. It’s probably one of the toughest on the court but she came in and made great strides,” said Annika. “She was really raw, talent-wise, coming in but she took feedback and listened to what the coaches were saying, what her teammates were helping her with. She really applied it and she made tremendous strides throughout last season and the spring.”

Wilson, who also showed she could hit, nailing 168 kills on .208 hitting, with a pair of 10-kill matches and four straight matches hitting over .300, welcomes that added responsibility now that she has a year under her belt.

“Freshman year I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “Toward the end of last year you could definitely tell improvement and I feel like I’ve improved a lot over the summer. So I expect to do well this season. College ball is definitely faster but since I am going into my second year I feel like I’m a little bit used to it…a LOT used to it.”

Pitz also is looking to build on her 2014-15 season and play a bigger role. The 6-2 junior from Carmel, Ind., who played in but one match as a freshman, played in 30 matches (22 starts) as a sophomore, blasting 105 kills, 1.13 per set, with a .234 hitting percentage — only Annika Van Gunst and setter Rebecca Martin hit for a higher percentage. Defensively, she knocked down 73 shots (second on the team behind Wilson), with nine solos (third, behind Wilson and Teegan Van Gunst).

“I definitely think my leadership role has grown on the team. I’m definitely a positive force. I hope to bring a lot of positive energy and hope to just better the team as a whole,” she said. “I think my blocking has improved a lot, footwork, agility, just overall quickness. My hitting has gotten a lot better, transitioning faster. We’ve been working a lot better as a team; as a whole.”

Collier is looking for continued improvement and contributions from the experienced and more court-savvy Pitz.

“Her experience and cool demeanor on the court, she’s calm, she works hard, she focuses well on what she needs to do and plays her role really well,” said Collier. “She’s going to be a source of experience out there. She brings us a lot of that.”

Annika Van Gunst has plenty of experience and skill in the middle, but in practice has split her time between middle blocker and right outside hitter. Collier likes the flexibility the 6-0 Van Gunst offers.

“She gives us an option to put her in the middle. So she’s very versatile, she’s very good with the quick set, she’s good behind the setter on a slide,” said Collier. “That gives us different lineup possibilities, and will that help us match what we feel we need to do to beat our opponents. It’s good to have somebody with that quality and that experience that she has at both positions to be able to do that.”

Annika has been very consistent, recording 57 and 58 blocks in her two seasons on the Flats, but dramatically improved her kills total her sophomore season (326 up from 121 as a freshman). She’s gotten comfortable being a wild card.

“I train both in practices. Some days I’m with the outsides, the right sides, some days I’m with the middles,” she said. “In matches a lot last year, I played pretty much right side. I would prefer right side but I’m really willing to do whatever.”

Like Van Gunst, Lauren Frerking, a 6-2 Johns Creek, Ga., native and the lone freshman on the roster, is willing to do whatever on the court. Collier feels Frerking, a three-time Georgia Volleyball Coaches Association (GVCA) AA All-State selection (2012-14), and two-time Area 6AA Player of the Year (‘13 and ‘14) at Wesleyan High School, offers a lot.

“She’s very athletic, she’s gotten used to the speed of the game and everything she needs to do,” said Collier. “She’s adjusted well to some of the things that we have mentioned as far as changing her game and help make her more efficient at this level. So she has a great personality, she’s a great team player. She’s definitely going to be fighting for some playing time with Sydney and Pitz. Even though she’s a freshman, she definitely has enhanced the level of that position in our gym. It’s nice to see that.”

Frerking, who chose volleyball over basketball (her dad played college ball at Missouri and her older sister, Kate, currently plays at Auburn) has found adjusting to the college game to be a bit head-spinning, but is enjoying pushing her more experienced teammates.

“We really push each other a lot and we also encourage each other a lot,” she said. “We constantly are helping each other and talking with each other, trying to figure stuff out together. We’re just trying to all get better together and leave it up to the coaches to see what they like and don’t like.”

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