In Saturday’s five-set win against Princeton, UCLA had 35 service errors.
That’s not a typo.
It’s a stunning statistic that BYU men’s volleyball coaches shared with each other on social media. The Bruins — who are actually third in the country in aces per set (2.73) — and the Tigers combined for 58 errors in 226 serves, which means about one in four serves was an error.
Not exactly a beautiful game, right?
Men’s college volleyball is all about the serve. Can you put pressure on your opponent from the service line? Can you get them out of system?
BYU had a great weekend serving against No. 11 Loyola-Chicago and No. 6 Lewis, combining for 21 aces (and just 27 errors) in a pair of 3-1 victories. Junior opposite Gabi Garcia Fernandez had 11 of those aces and currently leads the country in that category with 1.375 per set.
In the second set against Lewis, BYU trailed 21-20 and sided out. Fernandez then dealt four straight service aces for a 25-21 win.
There’s a balance in serving philosophy between smashing the ball as hard as you can and getting the ball in play. Teams have to serve tough because at this level, soft serving almost always results in a side out for the opponent. But you can also take yourself out of the match. UCLA, which fronted Princeton what amounted to almost a game and a half of points in service errors, nearly did.
BYU coach Shawn Olmstead was hesitant to answer the question about that serving balance at a recent practice. Superstition because the Cougars served so well on the weekend?
“I don’t want to curse myself,” Olmstead said.
Olmstead referred to a study done years ago by BYU women’s volleyball volunteer assistant and statistical guru Gil Fellingham, who focused on the international men’s game to determine what skills correlated most to success and winning.
“It came down to serve and pass,” Olmstead said. “That study, if it was replicated today, would very likely show the same thing. But what’s interesting about the study is that it showed that the worst thing you can do — in certain moments — was miss a serve. The next worst thing was to serve easy. There is a balance and we’re constantly trying to figure it out.”
Fernandez has one of the most dangerous jump serves in the country. He has 94 aces in 55 matches and nearly two years left to catch Cougar legend Taylor Sander, who had 182 aces in his brilliant career.
“There’s no secret formula,” Fernandez said. “You just have to calm yourself and know that every teammate on the court trusts you to do the right thing. If you believe in yourself, you can do the job. You do it (serve) over and over in the preseason. This is no different than the preseason. You just go out there, do your job and everybody has your back.”
Fernandez, senior setter Wil Stanley and sophomore outside hitter Davide Gardini all possess strong jump serves. The Cougars mix things up with middle blockers Miki Jauhiainen and Felipe de Brito Ferreira opting for the float serve.
“What we’ve done this year is we’re really trying to find the range for the guys,” Olmstead said. “We want the players to test themselves and grow. As coaches, we can’t be on the sideline freaking out over every missed serve because we need the guys to be aggressive and confident.”
Omstead said there different approaches for different players. Fernandez, for instance, is giving a long leash because his powerful serves can change the game in a hurry. A certain amount of errors is expected and accepted. Others may be asked to take a little bit off of heir serve until they feel more confident if they have a string of errors.
Omstead said he took one player aside after this weekend and told him he was serving well enough to take more chances.
“I believe this team is better at being aware of situations than we were last year,” Olmstead said. “Maybe they think, ‘The two guys ahead of me just missed serves, so right now, for the betterment of the team, maybe I don’t have the green light. Maybe I’ve just got to give ourselves a chance to score.’”