MULAY: Diagnosing Virginia volleyball’s biggest flaws

What problems have plagued the Cavaliers the most this season?

sarah-billard

The Cavaliers have been led by sophomore outside hitter Sarah Billiard, who leads Virginia with 3.86 kills per set. 

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

While the Virginia volleyball team has now picked up a pair of conference wins, the Cavaliers have still struggled immensely this season — especially against elite competition. With an ACC record of 2-8, Virginia has won just 20 percent of its conference games. Worse yet, the Cavaliers have lost half of those matches in straight sets.

Although Virginia has produced several memorable moments, the team has yet to pose a serious threat to the elite members of the ACC. The Cavaliers may have the goal of ultimately reaching the NCAA Tournament, but winning consistently in their own conference is the first step.

Virginia has a lot of room to improve and must address its weaknesses — a lack of a balanced attack, erratic defense and an inability to maintain leads and keep games close — to become a legitimate contender in the conference. 

Lack of a balanced attack

Successful volleyball teams can be built in many different ways, but one thing is virtually universal among all of them — the ability to generate offense when necessary. The Cavaliers’ attack, however, has struggled during conference play, as their ACC opponents have out-killed them 491-447. 

While the Cavaliers’ offensive troubles can be attributed to a number of issues, one of the most obvious explanations is a complete absence of attacking balance. Throughout this season, the Cavaliers have been led by sophomore outside hitter Sarah Billiard, who leads Virginia with 3.86 kills per set. However, the Cavaliers are not only led by Billiard — they are also dependent on the North Carolina native for much of their offensive production. In fact, Billiard alone has contributed 266 of the total 866 kills Virginia has registered this season across 18 matches — that means one player is responsible for over 30 percent of Virginia’s kills. 

Moreover, Billiard isn’t exactly getting a lot of help this season. The only other Virginia players with more than 100 kills has been junior right-side hitter Jelena Novakovic and freshman outside-hitter Grace Turner. In comparison, Pittsburgh and Louisville — the two teams currently at the top of the ACC — have at least four players over the 100-kill mark, emphasizing that having multiple attacking options is a key factor for success.

Virginia’s lack of attacking balance is problematic. If Billiard and her teammates don’t perform at the highest level throughout the match, then the attack could suffer from periods of stagnancy, which could lead to irrecoverable deficits.

The Cavaliers’ dominant sweep of North Carolina Oct. 14 highlights the success Virginia can achieve with a balanced offense. On that day, five Virginia players registered at least five kills and, accordingly, the team picked up a critical conference victory.

Unfortunately, poor depth and balance are not short-term fixes. Instead, both patience and long-term player development are necessary to build a solid squad. On a positive note, the Cavaliers are a very young group with many freshmen stepping up this year — especially Turner, who is third on the team with 122 kills. Accordingly, as Virginia’s players gain experience, Coach Aaron Smith will have the opportunity to develop a well-rounded team in time.  

Erratic defense

When the Cavaliers’ defense is firing on all cylinders, freshman middle blocker Milla Ciprian is delivering rejections left and right, junior libero Kelsey Miller is diving to save plays and the entire team is operating as one unit.

When the tide turns, however, Virginia can fall into long spells of trouble, struggling to cope as its opponent piles on the pressure. It is these moments where the Cavaliers’ defense has to step up and take control again but often fails to do so. 

Virginia’s 1-3 loss to NC State Oct. 12 exemplifies their highly inconsistent defense. The Cavaliers were as stout as ever in the first set, holding the Wolfpack to an abysmal .025 hitting efficiency, as they recorded three blocks and forced 10 NC State errors. In the following three sets, however, Virginia’s defense collapsed, as the Wolfpack hit over .300 in each set and averaged 16.7 kills. Defensive failure in those sets — on Virginia’s part — led to NC State winning three consecutive sets and the game. 

The contrast between the Cavaliers’ suffocating defense in the first set and their floundering performance in the remaining three is striking. Virginia simply cannot expect to defend so unevenly and still win especially against teams with punishing attacks.

It’s important to note, however, that Virginia has talented individual defenders on the team. Considering conference play only, Ciprian is averaging 1.49 blocks per set, and Miller is averaging 3.74 digs per set — No. 2 and No. 6 in the ACC, respectively. Clearly, the problem is not a lack of individual prowess but has more to do with Virginia’s ability to play as a complete team, anticipating spikes and defending aggressively as one unit.

Inability to maintain leads and keep games close

One of Virginia volleyball’s key storylines this season has been the team’s inability to sustain advantages built early in the set. 

On a number of occasions, Virginia has raced out to quick leads thanks to efficient offense and stingy defense. However, all too often, the Cavaliers fall flat as the set progresses and the opposing team is able to wrest control away from them.

When the Cavaliers lose their momentum, their lead can quickly evaporate. In volleyball, a team’s offensive and defensive play are highly connected. Explosive offense helps relieve the burden on the defense, and strong defense sets up effective attacking opportunities. When both its offense and defense struggle, Virginia can become dormant and give up masses of points in rapid succession.

Throughout the season, the pattern has been the same. Virginia either takes the lead early or — at the very least — keeps the score line close before eventually allowing its opponent to run away with the set. 

Against NC State, Virginia had a 5-2 lead in the third set before the Wolfpack used an 11-2 run to seize control.

In their game against Syracuse, the Cavaliers opened the second set on fire, taking a 10-3 lead, but the Orange erased the deficit with a 10-3 run of their own.

When they faced Pittsburgh — the best team in the ACC — Virginia used 7-0 and 4-0 runs to build a 20-13 lead in the second set. The Panthers, however, rallied and reeled off a 10-1 run to regain the advantage.  

Practice, time and player development can all help the Cavaliers improve their offense and defense. However, if they don’t have the mental toughness and focus to maintain the leads they worked hard to build, more 3-1 and 3-0 losses await.

Vignesh Mulay covers volleyball for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at mulayvignesh@gmail.com or followed on Twitter @vigneshmulay. 

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