Up-and-coming Liberty looking to play above the net in EIVA
September 26, 2013 | Lynchburg, Va.
Opponents at Saturday's season-opening Virginia Tech Tournament in Blacksburg might do a double-take when they glance across the net at Liberty University's new and improved men's volleyball team.
"When you look at them, they're all 6-3 or above and you see them blocking," Flames head coach Bryan Rigg said. "It's discouraging for guys hitting against them because there's very little room for them to hit through their blocks, with these towering guys at the net."
After finishing 0-7 in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association's Division I South last season, the Flames have risen up the ranks and now could be one of the favorites in the EIVA.
"We're better at almost every position than last year," Rigg said. "We're a month into practices and the team camaraderie and chemistry and team approach to the game is better than last year."
Liberty's top two challengers likely will be the defending EIVA regular-season champion Hokies, who ended the year ranked No. 13 in the nation, and EIVA tournament champion James Madison, which finished at No. 15.
Hershberger, one of five players from Rigg's home state of Pennsylvania along with returning libero Josiah Williams, elevates Liberty's overall game immediately.
"Si is our best all-around player," said Rigg, who moved Hershberger from middle to outside hitter. "He knows the game better than any freshman I've ever seen and he' going to be a game-changer."
Culkin and Snyder, two of the five Flames who also play on the beach volleyball team, are graduate students with serious upsides in the indoor game, boasting 30-inch-plus vertical leaps.
"He's a big left-handed right-side hitter," Rigg said of Snyder, who cleared 7 feet as a high jumper at Oklahoma and played with Ethan Chase on the beach team. "His standing vertical, he can touch (about) 11 feet, which is just unheard of. On the indoor court, he's amazing. He loves volleyball and he hits hard, really hard. He might be our best hitter. He's just so powerful."
After playing tight end on Liberty's football team as an undergrad, Culkin teamed with former hockey standout Mike Morrison to form the Flames' No. 1 beach tandem this summer.
"Ryan hasn't played much indoors," Rigg said. "He's still working on his hitting, but he is our best blocker. He's very athletic and he might have the best vertical leap. I'm pretty confident will lead our team in blocks. He's getting his whole head above the net."
Playing beach volleyball helped Chase shift from right-side hitter to setter this season.
"It is a transition but it makes sense," Rigg said. "He's pretty tall and he's left-handed, which is a huge tool and additional dimension for a setter to have. He's never played setter, but I think it will work well. He's been training all summer."
Being a left-handed setter stationed at the right side of the net makes Chase more of an offensive threat.
"A setter typically will have his back to the net, facing his teammates," Rigg said. "Being right-handed, he's never in position to hit the ball, or dump effectively with his right shoulder facing the net."
By contrast, when Chase opts not to set, he can pivot and tip the ball over the net just as easily.
"It's almost like a sneak attack," Rigg said. "As he plays through the season, I bet he'll have at least two kills per match."
Chase's height also will make him a better blocker than most setters, against opposing outside hitters.
"He's probably got four inches on the setters we had last year," Rigg said.
When the rotation has him playing defense on the back row, Chase needs to know when to move to the net to set.
"One of things he needs to improve on is not so much being fast or quick, but when to release, to go to the net and set that ball," Rigg said, noting once the ball is served, players can rotate anywhere on the court during a point. "He needs to move as soon as the ball is past him. That's hard to do. It's a learned behavior."
Rigg also hopes the Flames learn to find ways to win this season, starting with Saturday's tournament in Blacksburg. Besides favorite Virginia Tech and Virginia, the only team to finish below Liberty in the EIVA last season at 0-8, the tournament will feature JMU, North Carolina, Maryland, Wake Forest, and Richmond.
Next Saturday, UVA and Richmond will be in the field for the Liberty Tournament, held in the Schilling Center, along with Duke, N.C. State, UNC Wilmington, Virginia Commonwealth, and William & Mary.