I must apologize to my readers here at the pond. It has been a while since I last posted and I will be much better about it moving forward, but the pieces I have been working on (especially this one) require(d) a lot of attention. My posts generally range between coverage (Landscape Series), philosophy (Lesson’s from the Bench), and research (Serve Tougher) and the research-based pieces tend to take me quite a while. While I have the most fun writing the research articles, I apologize for the time they take to put together; especially because this article started out as a research project and slowly morphed into a philosophical work.
A few weeks ago, I began collecting the historical data of all the AVCA Top 15 teams going back to 2011. Originally, I wanted to collect all the significant box-score statistics and create a linear regression to see which statistics had the greatest correlation with win percentages. While I was loosely interested in the correlation between certain stats and winning percentage, having a data pool this large is always helpful for doing future studies (especially when the sample is supposedly of the best D3 teams, outside of the expected flaws of convenience sampling and an opinion poll).
As I was collecting the data, a series of numbers began to stick out to me, listed below. These are the blocks/set numbers of one program going all the way back to 2011 (no, it is not Springfield).
For the last 10 years, the Stevenson Mustangs have averaged 2.27 blocks/set while playing in arguably some of the more competitive conferences in the D3 Landscape (CVC/MAC).
A good blocking team is going to average around 2 blocks/set. Anything less than that in my experience means the teams blocking isn’t their greatest strength. This is not to say good teams cannot exist without meeting the 2 blocks/set threshold (Springfield 2020/New Paltz 2019/16), but it is important. The very nature of Men’s Volleyball puts an added emphasis on the importance of being able to block effectively.
I have written about this before, but the men’s game is predominantly played during what is called the “Complex I” phase of a volleyball match. Complex I consists of the actions of serve, serve-receive, and attacking off of a serve. Studies have shown as much as 60 percent of higher-level men’s ball is played during this portion of a match. If the serve-receive team can effectively receive the ball in the men’s game, they are favored to win the point. It is why serving tough is the first line of defense in volleyball. The next line of defense is the block, and blocking is really hard. Even if your team is hitting the threshold of 2 blocks/set, you’re only scoring 6 points in a 3 set victory out of the 75 you need to win.
Stevenson averaging 2.27 blocks/set over a decade between several coaches is beyond extraordinary and warranted further examination. While I would love to keep this article focused on numbers, the true story resides in something I feel to be way more important, the aspect of team identity.
A clear cohesive team identity is the foundational factor that determines all future success of a program. It is a fascinating concept of group dynamics and sport psychology, but at the end of the day and for our purposes it boils down to being able to answer a few questions.
1. What does your team do better than other teams?
2. How consistently can your team do this?
3. Does it help you win?
The 2010-2017 “Grit-n-Grind” Grizzlies smothered opposing NBA teams with suffocating defense and would grind out wins in low scoring basketball games on a nightly basis (I’m a huge Grizzlies fan and this was a golden age for me).
The 2013 “Legion of Boom” Seattle Seahawks, pounding you on offense with Marshawn Lynch and then literally pounding you on defense with the best/most terrifying secondary the NFL has ever seen.
The Yankees, self-explanatory.
This concept is not foreign to the sport of volleyball either. Coach Dave Shondell at Purdue was known to profess “serve, pass, play defense” when shaping the program into a national power. Russ Rose of Penn State built a team that would “compete on every point”. Nebraska is known for having great blocking programs, so on and so forth.
In D3 men’s volleyball, you can see identities on the floor. Springfield has an aura of dominance, New Paltz serves tough and pounds from the right-side and the middle, and MIT is just always good defensively. So, this begged the question, was this trend in the Stevenson blocks/set numbers the marker of a team identity?
The Stevenson program largely began to appear on the D3 radar around the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and truly turned the corner in 2013 and culminated with the programs current high point of a 2016 final four appearance after defeating Carthage in the quarter finals.
Team Identities are generally formed either naturally over time, through intentional planning, or as the result of conflict and struggle. As the Stevenson program had a few different head coaches during this ten-year period, an intentional planning could be ruled out, though each coach brought something to benefit each roster to maximizing their blocking potential. What should be noted though, was a natural evolution over-time that was largely player driven.
The 2013-2016 Stevenson Mustangs were the years I focused on when examining the culture and identity of the program. I did this because the 2013-2016 Mustangs had the highest collective blocks/set numbers of any 4 years roster change within the program, the 2013 freshmen would be exposed to the 2011/12 upperclassmen, and the the 2016 roster would have shaped features of the 2017/18 cultures.
Interviewing members of these rosters was truly enlightening, as you never really see what other teams are doing in their gyms. You play them, you watch them at a tournament, but you never know the struggles they have on the gym floor. You never know the effort that is put in behind closed doors, you never know what relationships are driving certain behaviors or motivating improvement.
What I found in Stevenson was a collection of highly motivated young men with a passion to get better, which is the crucial ingredient for any successful team. The second thing, a collection of exceptionally good individual blockers.
Kyle Wisner, Kyle Pottegier, Eddy Klepper, Nate Ellis, Rob Wingert, Nate Reynolds, Kyle Bosko… all individually skillful blockers. Having athletes on your roster who are already skilled at a technique is naturally going to make your program good at performing that technique (not rocket science).
There’s really no secret to making your team better at a skill, especially in the college setting where you’re constantly getting new personnel every year. You either teach the right technique or your recruit players who can perform the technique correctly. Stevenson did both, they recruited guys who could block well and practiced good blocking habits.
Further, the Mustangs were very good at reading, especially at the net. Watching film of Stevenson, you can literally track the eyes of their front row players in several matches as they read the flow of the game in front of them (Kyle Pottegier and Nate Ellis were particularly good).
The Mustangs did a variety of things to maximize their on court performance. They spent a large amount of time studying film, used a scout team to prepare their starters for opposing play styles (going as far as to mimic the setting habits of opposing players), committed/practiced play strategies around their opponents strengths, and upperclassmen who were constantly setting the right example… these are all things Stevenson utilized effectively in developing a team culture and identity.
The program played a High IQ game which maximized their natural blocking advantage over other teams. They focused on what they were good at, which is a strength based approach to team success I will always advocate. You want to do tactically what you can execute technically (I’m underlining that for emphasis). If you don’t have the personnel or necessary base level of skill to perform an action, crafting a strategy around that action is a waste of time. If your OH2 is not very good at running pipe ball, don’t emphasize the pipe ball. If your Opposite is really good at running the D-Ball, let them be the primary back row option since that is what your personnel is allowing you to be good at. Because winning is just as much about maximizing your strengths as it is emphasizing your opponents weaknesses. For Stevenson, their strength was blocking, and they played in such a way to emphasize it.
Over-time, their play style evolved as their personnel changed. They started getting players with all-American firepower, they got larger at the net, they started generating more first-ball side-out opportunities, and they began to serve tougher. But they still were able to maintain a team culture which bought into an idea and followed their senior leadership. The byproduct is that they likely became the best blocking program in D3 up to this point.
Alumni Rob Wingert called them the Big Dog Construction Company: An Interstate Roofing Organization; the name itself sums it up.
A collection of their greatest hits can be found here .
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