Jennah Torres leaped from behind the end line, tossed the ball high and hit a laser at Selma High School star outside hitter Caitlyn Hansen.
Thud. The topspin serve handcuffed Hansen and caromed off her chest as Torres and her Kingsburg teammates rejoiced. It was a key point in an eventual three-set Viking victory on Oct. 10.
“The topspin jump serve spins the ball forward and drives it into the ground with a lot of velocity,” Kingsburg coach David Light said. “If you’re going to lollypop the ball over you might as well just give the point away.”
John Tawa of Portland, Oregon, the founder of prepvolleyball.com, agrees. When it comes to serving, he favors aggression.
“You’re going to lose some points by serving too aggressively, but you’ll win more because you get your opponents out of system or you ace them,” Tawa said. “If you can hit the ball to a specific quadrant with pace, it will disrupt your opponent’s offense.”
Ah, the volleyball serve. Like the basketball free throw, it is performed when play has stopped. But unlike the free throw where the target is an 18-inch cylinder, volleyball offers a plane that is 30 feet by 30 feet on each side.
“The court is large enough to land a helicopter,” Light said. “So you should be able to hit a serve into it.”
Why players of both genders sometimes botch serves is complicated and difficult to explain, especially since many in the stands have never played the sport.
Despite volleyball being invented in 1895 and becoming an Olympic sport in 1964, many high schools including Kingsburg and Selma do not have boys’ teams, making the sport a bit of a mystery for many male observers.
Beach volleyball did not become an Olympic sport until 1996 and it has only been within the last 20 years the game has caught fire, aided by the three-time gold medalists from California, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. They made all forms of volleyball cool, if not simple to play nor understand.
Walsh Jennings grew up in Scotts Valley amid the Santa Cruz Mountains, so she knows all about peaks and valleys.
“I have been in a rut, at one time or another, for every single skill the game holds,” she said via email. “Rough patches are attributed to three things: Trying too hard; poor self-talk which leads to poor confidence; and trying to do too much.”
Walsh Jennings said when she is struggling, she returns to the basics.
“For serving, I’ll start at the 10-foot line and work on my hand-to-ball contact and location,” she said. “I’ll move back after a few consistent serves.”
Kingsburg's Torres and Kassidy Wilson are two of Kingsburg’s best servers. Torres, a sophomore, acknowledged that serving in a packed gym against a rival school can be difficult.
“It’s super nerve-wracking,” she said. “Last year I served for the first time and it was packed because we were playing Immanuel. I missed the serve. It went straight into the net and we had to play another set.”
Welcome to varsity, kid.
Selma’s Hansen, a senior, can empathize. Asked if she has ever flubbed a serve because of nerves, she said: “Yes. If it’s game point for the other team and I’m serving, I may get nervous and get in my own head and not focus.”
Hansen does not miss often. Alternating between a standing float and a jump serve, she is accurate on 88.1 percent of her serves.
Big crowds and frayed nerves are not the main problem for most, said first-year Selma coach Montana Lowe, a former Fresno Pacific University and Clovis High star athlete.
“I think 25 percent of it is choking and 75 percent physical,” Lowe said. “A missed serve is huge because its shifts momentum. If you miss one, the other team gets an easy point, so it’s important to get it in and make them play the ball.”
Kingsburg’s Wilson concurred. The 6-foot-1 junior is a standout in both volleyball and track and field and does not rattle easily. For Wilson, it is all about execution and fundamentals.
“If I miss serves during a match, it’s usually because I’m trying to be too offensive,” she said. “But if someone totally misses on a serve, I think it’s because they toss the ball badly or they aren’t focusing enough.”
A comparison of the serving statistics for area teams such as Kingsburg and Selma and the state’s three top-ranked teams – Mater Dei of Santa Ana, Torrey Pines of San Diego County and Archbishop Mitty of San Jose – is interesting.
According to stats gleaned from MaxPreps.com, Kingsburg makes only 4.3 service errors per match, compared to 5.3 for Selma, 5.2 for Mitty, 5.7 for top-ranked Mater Dei and 6.3 for Torrey Pines. Moreover, Selma and Kingsburg’s serving percentage of 89.5 percent is not much lower than Mater Dei, Torrey Pines and Archbishop Mitty who are all at just over 90 percent.
What might confuse the volleyball neophyte, said Prepvolleyball.com’s Tawa, is that high-risk serves can hurt your stats, but they will help you win the match.
“Assumption High of Louisville coach Ron Kordes says he’ll take service errors all day long as long as the girls are being aggressive,” Tawa said. “For me, there is nothing like a pressure moment where a girl just rips a serve.
"For me, there is nothing like a pressure moment where a girl just rips a serve. Mater Dei has a sophomore setter named Mia Tuaniga and she has one of the best jump serves; she just hits the snot out of the ball. I saw her win the Nike Tournament with four aces to the same spot and that’s hard to do.”
Confidence the key
So why, Joe Fan might ask, aren’t all the Selma and Kingsburg girls tossing the ball high, jumping to the rafters and snapping their wrists down to make the ball sink into the hardwood? Perhaps because they are not all club players like at the state's top-ranked schools.
“We mainly teach the standing float serve,” Selma’s Lowe said. “With the level our girls are at, it’s the easiest serve for them.”
Seems reasonable. Besides, the float serve, if done properly, will dance like a knuckle ball and often confuses the defensive player which can throw off an offense.
No matter what serve is employed – standing float, jump float or jump topspin – confidence is vital.
“Confidence comes from one place – yourself,” Olympian Walsh Jennings said. “It’s awesome when your teammates, your coaches and parents think you’re amazing, but in order to be real and in order to survive the rough patches, confidence must come from YOU.”