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  • Writer's pictureGold Medal Squared

Volleyball Rotations 201 - Rotation 1

Each week, I’ll pull out some clips from top NCAA teams and look at what choices they are making in different rotations, and discuss why they might make those choices. We’ll go deeper than normal, so let’s call this feature, “Rotations 201.”

University of Illinois made a Final Four run last year, and I’ve been excited to see how they come out this year. They lost All-American setter Jordyn Poulter to graduation, but retained several key hitters. They also had an interesting scheduling quirk: they played at Tennessee on a Friday, and then hosted the Vols on a Sunday. This gave some opportunity for me to see what adjustments they made between the first match and the second, with only a short turn-around.

Specifically, I wanted to look at how they handled Rotation 1, which can be a challenging rotation for many teams.

In the first match, they started in what we’ll call a “Traditional” Rotation 1:

They spread the court with their outside hitting on the right, middle hitting some sort of quick set inside, and the opposite hitting on the left. In the first match, Illinois was not great in Rotation 1: they won the point while they were receiving 10 times out of 19, for a sideout efficiency of 53%. This isn’t a terrible number for some teams, but for a team with championship aspirations, they want to be better than that.

Let’s look at the rotation breakdown on the GMS Stats app:

So we can see they were efficient in their First Ball attacking, but struggled in Transition. What complicates matters a bit is that Illinois switched their tactics part of the way through, shifting to a Stack formation:

In this rotation, their outside attacker is going to swing on the left, while the middle hits a quick and the opposite comes around to hit a slide on the right side. It can be a difficult pattern for some teams to execute, and you lose the ability to set a high ball to the right side if you’re out-of-system, but it allows you to get your best leftside attacker (who we presume is playing outside) hitting on the left and your better opposite over on the right. Illinois earned several critical sideouts in the second half of Match #1 like this:

You can see that this ability to sideout revolved around the outside hitters (either in the front row or the back row) and often involved them taking big swings out-of-system. This is the primary advantage of a stack formation: you have an easier attacking pattern for your outside hitter to hit on the left if you don’t pass well. It also makes an easier attacking pattern for your backrow outside hitter to hit a pipe- not important for many high school teams, but in this case it’s returning All-American Jacqueline Quade, who Illinois does like to set in the backrow.

All told, in the first match, the breakdown between Spread and Stack formations went like this:


Sideouts: 3

Opponent Points: 7

Missed Serves: 1

Earned Sideout % = 30% (we ignore missed serves, since we didn’t earn them)


Sideouts: 5

Opponent Points: 2

Missed Serves: 1

Earned Sideout % = 71%

With that in mind, we’d expect Illinois to come out the next match in a Stack formation, and they did, earning some early sideouts. Overall, they stuck with the Stack most often, and actually went 5 for 7 again, with an earned sideout of 71%. What I liked is that they also mixed in some spread, and earned some critical sideouts.

When we look at the numbers, the production was actually not better in First Ball, but they were able to win more rallies in Transition.

And just as they got on a roll in Rotation 1 toward the second half of the first match, they did so again in Match #2, with 3 straight sideouts:

So first, we see them using the Stack rotation, with their outsides taking some smart swings on tough balls to set up chances to win the rallies in transition. Then, in the 5th set, they switch back to the Spread and get a nice kill on the right side, something they hardly did all match.

A good rule of thumb is to have a primary offensive plan, but also a “Plan B” for each rotation. I love these examples of Illinois being able to adjust from their initial Spread plan into a Stack, keep using it while it was working, and then sprinkling back in just enough Spread to keep their opponents guessing.

I love watching Illinois Head Coach (and GMS Advisory Staff!) Chris Tamas put together and execute a game plan. I can’t wait to see some of these rotations evolve over the course of the season as the chess match between them and their opponents continues!

To your success!

Joe Trinsey

Gold Medal Squared

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