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Serve Tougher: DIII Men’s Volleyball National Championship

The 2019 DIII men’s volleyball championship featured SUNY New Paltz -vs- UC Santa Cruz. It was a remarkable culmination for both teams. New Paltz was largely eliminated from getting an at-large bid and needed to win their conference tournament to even make the show. UC Santa Cruz received a Pool B at large bid by defeating Cal Lutheran in the last week of regular season play after going 18-16 during the regular season. 

Both teams navigated particularly challenging routes to the finals. New Paltz came from behind against Endicott in the quarterfinals in a miraculous 5th set win, and then upset the reigning champion Springfield in the semis (this loss would mark the first year Springfield would not play for National Championship in the post Molten era). UC-Santa Cruz survived Carthage in the first round, then defeated NCAA newcomer Fontbonne before upsetting Stevens Institute of Technology in the semis to earn their shot. 

The finals looked as if it could provide some tension, as UC-Santa Cruz held on to a close first set (25-23) to edge New Paltz (who was boosted by a large hometown like crowd due to regional proximity). However, Set 1 would be the closest UCSC would come to victory, as New Paltz would go on to win the match (and championship) in four sets; 23-25, 25-18, 25-17, 25-15. 

The last three sets were a clear dominance for New Paltz in many facets of the match. Likewise, the cursory match statistics back up this observation (hitting percentage, assists/set, digs/set, etc); hitting efficiency in itself is one of the best predictors for match outcomes and New Paltz hit a combined .432 from sets 2-4. This type of hitting efficiency is going to win nine times out of ten.

What I found to be the most interesting facet of this match was the clear difference in serving styles between the two teams. New Paltz largely utilized aggressive Power Jump Serves (Jump Serves), while UC Santa Cruz utilized a higher than normal rate of Jump Float Serves (Float Serves) for higher level men’s play. Anecdotally, I do not often see the Float Serve usage rate UC Santa Cruz employed during this game, this may have been a team strategy as New Paltz has often been noted to have difficulty passing Float Serves. The power jump serve has been shown to be the more popular style of serve in the men’s collegiate game, and often teams will try to balance a squad of jump servers with one of two jump float servers.

Throughout the match, New Paltz was clearly way more aggressive from the service line, and in my view they won the “serve/serve receive war”.  Jim Coleman, the father of modern day volleyball analytics, once said “the serving/passing game determines what gym a team should be playing in”. You’d be hard pressed to ever find a high level game not starting with commentators mentioning how key the serve/pass game will be to the match outcome.

This is exactly what happened between New Paltz and UCSC, at least from my perspective. The float serves of UC-Santa Cruz did not seem to pressure the New Paltz Serve Receive; whereas the New Paltz serves seemed to greatly pressure the UCSC serve receive. 

More in depth analysis was needed to support this observation. Based on my first watch of the game, I suspected New Paltz had greater serve and reception efficacy compared to UC Santa Cruz, which gave them a decidedly large advantage throughout the match.  I’m about to get very “academic”, so if your like me and would rather skip to the findings, just scroll down to the “discussions” paragraph. Everything else is for transparency.

Hypothesis
1) New Paltz had a higher serve efficacy than UC Santa Cruz
2) New Paltz had a higher reception (passing) efficacy than UC Santa Cruz.

Key Terms:

Jump Serve: serving technique where the server tosses the ball into the air and approaches and attacks the ball, giving the ball extra top spin and forward velocity. Often termed power jump serve in volleyball literature to distinguish it from the jump float serve. 

Float Serve (Jump Float Serve): serving technique where the server lifts the ball above their head and contacts it with the flat part of their hand; giving the ball no spin and letting it “float” towards the enemy team. The air flow over the ball causes it to have an erratic flight pattern, making it difficult to receive effectively. For our purposes, jump float serves are coded as float serves for this examination as no UCSC player did a standing float serve.  

Variables of Interest:

Serve Attempts  : number of times a team serves during a set/match. 

Service Errors : when the serving team misses a serve

Serve Efficacy : the measure of a serves effectiveness

Reception Efficacy: the measure of a serve receptions effectiveness (how good of a pass it was). 

Side Out (SO)%: How often a team wins a point when they are not serving

First Ball Side Out (FBSO): When a receiving team sides out on the first attack of a rally, denying the serving team any chance to score. 

Sample

The case studied was the match between SUNY New Paltz and UC Santa Cruz for the Division III NCAA championship. Both teams were analyzed over a period of 4 sets via a recording of the match on the NCAA men’s volleyball page. Box scores and play-by-plays of game flow were made available through each teams athletic website.

Method:

The analyzed variables were Service attempts, Service Errors, Serve Efficacy, Reception Efficacy, Side Outs, and First Ball Side Outs. 

Service attempts and service errors were recorded based on the number of times each team either attempted a serve or missed a serve. This was further divided into categories based on the type of serve, (Jump Serve, Float Serve, Roll Shot). Service errors were verified by official box scores of each match and total service attempts were verified by reviewing the match film. 

Reception Efficacy  was recorded using Jim Coleman’s model for evaluating serve reception. The model scores receptions on the following scale;

“0” pass – The passer is aced. The serve leads directly to a point for the serving team.
“1” pass – The pass is kept in play, however the ball is returned as a free ball.
“2” pass – The pass allows the passing team to attack but with limited options.
“3” pass – The pass allows the passing team to execute their full attack options.
“4” pass – These points represent a missed serve and are awarded to the passing team and should be recorded on the passing stat sheet. (This is important, as you need it to calculate a team’s true passing score.)

Total team Reception Efficacy is determined by dividing the total number of serve attempts of the serving team by the combined scores of all receptions.  

Serving Efficacy was also recorded using Jim Colemans model, as the pass score is the initial reflection of how effective a serve is.  Serves were scored on the below scale.

‘0” serve – Missed serve.
“1” serve – The serve is in, and the pass allows the team to run all options.
“2” serve – The serve is in, and the pass allows the team limited attack options.
“3” serve – The serve is in, and the pass produces a free ball for the serving team.
“4″ serve – The serve is an ace and leads directly to a point for the serving team.

The key to this scale is how the reception efficacy and serve efficacy are related. The combined values of one serve being passed and the reception will add up to 4. Serve efficacy is determined by combining the total efficacy scores of all serves and dividing by the number of serve attempts. 

Side outs were tallied on occurrence throughout the match. Whenever the receiving team won the rally point, this was considered a side out. These tallies were double checked by reviewing the play-by-play feature off box-score reports made available on the SUNY New Paltz athletic website along side video analysis. FBSO were likewise tallied, and verified by watching the film of the match (4 times). 

Statistical Analysis

Descriptive statistics are used to represent the data. They can be found in the embedded document. New Paltz is colored in orange and UCSC in blue. Below that table you can find the summary of the serve and reception efficacy of the match for both teams.

Match TotalNew PaltzUC Santa Cruz
Serve Efficacy1.381.13
Serve Efficacy (JS)1.470.95
Serve Efficacy (FS)N/A1.20
Serve Efficacy (R)1.17N/A
Passing Efficacy2.872.62
Passing Efficacy (FS)2.80N/A
Passing Efficacy (JS)3.052.53
Passing Efficacy (R)N/A2.83
JS: Jump Serve FS: Jump Float Serve R: Roll shot off of the jump serve approach
*Numbers were rounded to the .00 decimal place
**The closer Passing Efficacy is to 3, the better the passing was, numbers over 3 signify a large share of serve errors
*** The closer Serve Efficacy is to 4, the stronger the overall serves were.
****One teams passing efficacy added to the opposing teams serve efficacy must equal 4.
Side Out (combined)NP totalNP PercentUCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 11354.21458.3
Set 21473.71354.2
Set 31376.51352
Set 412751145.8
Match5268.45152.6
FBSO (combined)NP totalNP %UCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 1940.9316.7
Set 21058.8631.6
Set 31062.5210.0
Set 4333.3315.8
Match3250.01420
SO (Float Serve)NP totalNP %UCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 1947.4N/AN/A
Set 2975N/AN/A
Set 3872.7N/AN/A
Set 4866.7N/AN/A
Match3463.0N/AN/A
SO (Jump Serve)NP totalNP %UCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 14801458.3
Set 2571.41354.2
Set 3466.71352
Set 441001145.8
Match1777.35152.6
FBSO (Float Serve)NP totalNP %UCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 1738.9N/AN/A
Set 2975.0N/AN/A
Set 31090.9N/AN/A
Set 4342.9N/AN/A
Total2960.4N/AN/A
FBSO (Jump Serve)NP totalNP %UCSC TotalUCSC %
Set 1250316.7
Set 2120633.3
Set 300211.8
Set 400316.7
Match318.81420

Discussion

Some key points to include. New Paltz served 97 times, with 91 of them being power jump serves and the remaining 6 roll shots adjusted mid flight by the server (recorded separately). This represents a 94% and 6% usage rate of these particular serving styles, with a 77 percent serve success rate (the serve wasn’t missed). In contrast, UCSC served 76 times, with 54 Jump Float Serves and 22 Power Jump Serves; a 71% and 29 % usage rate.

Using the Coleman scale of serve/serve-receive effectiveness; New Paltz had an overall Serving Efficacy of 1.38 compared to UCSC at 1.13. Conversely, New Paltz’s passing efficacy rating was 2.87 for the match, where as UCSC was 2.53. These numbers display an advantage in the serving/receiving game in favor of New Paltz.

Further, when broken down by serve type, the numbers are very revealing. UCSC was statistically better off float serving the majority of the game, as their jump serve attempts were more likely to result in New Paltz having an effective pass. The issue is that even sticking with Jump Float Serves, New Paltz still had a passing efficacy of 2.8. The float serving pressure wasn’t enough to get New Paltz out of system. This is even more evident when looking at the First Ball Side Out (FBSO) statistic.

For the match, New Paltz had an FBSO of 50%, meaning New Paltz was able to side-out on 50% of the successful USCS serves on their first swing; meaning UCSC had a chance to counterattack 50% of the time after a serve. Conversely, UCSC had an FBSO of 20%, meaning New Paltz had a chance to counterattack after they served 80% of the time. This can be attributed to a combination of serving pressure and team defense.

For this match, many people will point to the 22 serving errors of New Paltz in their victory to criticize the serving aspect of their game, as opposed to the 12 missed serves for UC Santa Cruz. They will always say the serving wasn’t that good, or they couldn’t have served well. This in my own view is incredibly short sighted, because the average person only looks at the one number (the missed serve) as opposed to the total picture.

New Paltz missed 22 serves, yes. This is a fact recorded in my data above; but when you look at the TOTAL NUMBER OF SERVES MADE, it paints a different story. New Paltz had 70 SUCCESSFULL jump serves in the match. UC Santa Cruz, by contrast, ATTEMPTED 76 serves. New Paltz nearly had as many successful serves as UC Santa Cruz attempted in the match… let that sink in.

Further, when combining both categories, New Paltz had 75 successful serves on 97 attempts to UC Santa Cruz’s 64 on 76 attempts. When you are serving more than the opposing team at this rate, you can miss more serves.

Conclusions

The serve-serve receive war is an important aspect in Volleyball. In this example, New Paltz was measured to have a higher serve efficacy and reception efficacy in comparison to UC Santa Cruz. This is crucial because higher level men’s volleyball is played often in the first complex of the game; which is attacking the ball off of serve receive.

The higher level teams jump serve to get the first attack on the ball. If your serve doesn’t pressure the opposing team, their offense will run effectively and the large majority of volleyball literature shows they will side out on their first ball.

The 2019 New Paltz team was not very good defensively. Statistically they were an average blocking team (66th in DIII) and one of the worst digging teams (91st in DIII). What they excelled at though, was creating opportunities from the service line. The program has been known to utilize an aggressive serving style since 2013, and by serving tough and getting UC Santa Cruz on the defensive from the service line they were able to overpower them with an array of offensive weapons. Culminating with their 2nd DIII National Championship.

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