Sept. 21, 2012
By Jon Cooper
There’s no underestimating the importance of the serve.
It’s what gets things rolling offensively.
Georgia Tech is rolling right now in part because nobody in the ACC is serving as well as they are.
Heading into this weekend of home ACC action — they hosted Boston College Friday night and take on Maryland Sunday afternoon, beginning at 1 p.m. — the Jackets led the conference, having smashed 79 service aces, a 2.03 per-set average. That was 12 more than the nearest rival, Clemson, which averaged 1.76 SA/set. The same Clemson team fell in straight sets to the Yellow Jackets last weekend.
The serve has become quite a weapon for the 2012 Yellow Jackets.
“Being able to serve tough and put opponents out of rhythm, for them not to be able to run the No. 1 offense, it makes it easier to defend, it makes it easier to block,” said junior libero/defensive specialist Susan Carlson, who led the ACC in serving last season and is among the leaders this season. “It just makes the game easier by serving tough.”
“It’s huge for us,” agreed outside hitter Monique Mead. “To get the team out of system so they can’t run their offense, they can’t run their middles is a big deal. Making sure that we stay in system while they’re out of system is a huge advantage and really puts us over the edge. So our serving game has to continue to stay on point.”
Tech’s servers not only have kept teams out of system, they’ve rendered them almost powerless. And there are multiple threats. The Jackets began play Friday with four players ranking in the ACC’s top 10 in service aces, as Mead and setter Kaleigh Colson each have 18 aces (.46 per set), ranking second behind NC State’s Nikki Glass. Carlson is not far behind, as her 16 SA’s (.43 per set) rank sixth, and outside hitter Bailey Hunter, last weeks ACC Player of the Week, is ninth, with 15 aces, .38 per set.
The serving styles used are as individual as the players themselves. Mead prefers the jump-serve, basically a spike but from the end line. Carlson and Colson prefer the jump-float serve, which as the name suggests, doesn’t overpower opponents as much as frustrate them.
“It’s not about it dropping into the court,” said Colson. “It’s more like location and moving the passers. Making them have to shift.”
“A jump-float, in my opinion, is the hardest thing to pass in the world,” said Carlson, whose serve was the one that both Mead and Colson agreed was the one they’d least like to face — Carlson chose the serve of junior outside hitter Ivona Kolak. “It comes at you with a lot of speed and it’s moving so you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go or where it’s going to land and so it can drop really fast. Kaleigh and I have a really strong serve that is fast at the passer but then it also drops. So it doesn’t go where they think it’s going to go. It’s like a knuckleball in baseball.”
Unlike with the knuckleball, where the pitcher often is as unsure about its landing place as the hitter — and even the catcher — the float-serve has a definite location and the server delivers is with a very good idea of where she wants it to go.
“I hope we know where it’s going,” said Carlson, with a laugh. “[Assistant Coach] Ed [Tolentino] is giving us areas on the bench, what passers to serve to on the other side of the net. So we definitely have targets.”
Not hitting Coach Tolentino’s intended targets isn’t the only no-no for Tech servers. There are several cardinal sins.
“There are a few,” said Colson. “Missing your serve on game point, the first point of the game, after a timeout, after your teammate before you misses. I believe there are seven, actually. The seven deadly sins of serving.”
“There are Cardinal sins of serving,” agreed Carlson. “Like after a timeout you’re not allowed to miss. When the person in front of you missed you’re not allowed to miss, whether it’s on either side of the net. That’s really big.”
These sins aside, aggressiveness is a big part of the serve.
“It’s definitely rhythm and a lot of momentum,” said Mead. “Once you build confidence, that’s a huge part of serving because it’s something that you can control completely. So definitely getting a lot of confidence and getting in a good rhythm with your serve is a big deal.
“This year serving has been a big part of our game,” she added. “Seeing that we’re so aggressive with our serving tells me that that’s a huge advantage. That’s a big difference between our team this year and last year. I feel like we’re a completely different team almost than we were last year.”
This year’s team is 9-2 and on the rise. After 11 matches last season the team was 7-4 and beginning a skid that would see them drop four out of five matches and basically derail the season.
They don’t expect a repeat of ’11, especially with their aggressiveness, starting with the improved service — they’re way ahead of last season’s 1.27 aces per set.
But even if they don’t stay on their current pace ace-wise, aggressive serving will remain a key component to their attack.
“It’s not all about the ace,” said Colson. “Serving tough and serving certain people to take them out of the play is what serving’s all about.
“Even if you don’t get an ace, just creating chaos on the other side of the net is a good thing.”