M.E. Dodge photo
UW ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

Passing is kind of like the infrastructure of volleyball. When it’s holding up just fine, nobody really notices or appreciates it. But when it fails, everything tends to collapse and chaos ensues.

That’s why the University of Wisconsin volleyball team spends an inordinate amount of time working on passing, the task of receiving the serve and getting the ball to the setter.

“Passing is one of those skills where nobody notices if you’re doing a great job,” said UW assistant coach Brittany Dildine, whose duties include the training of the passers. “But everybody in the building notices when you’re doing a bad job.”

Such instances have been relatively infrequent for the Badgers, who have placed a high priority on passing effectively and making it a foundation for the program’s success.

“The teams in this conference that are finishing toward the top, statistically, those are the best first-contact teams as well,” coach Kelly Sheffield said of the Big Ten. “They handle the pass really well, they don’t give up many points, they don’t get aced very often and they put their setter in good positions.”

The passing duties generally are handled by defensive players — for UW that includes Tiffany Clark, M.E. Dodge and Sarah Dodd, along with outside hitter Kelli Bates, who plays six rotations. Passing, however, requires an entirely different skill set than defensive play.

“Passing is, I don’t want to say relaxed, but there’s a different type of flow to it,” Dodge said. “Defense is more of a grind where you hunt down every ball. In passing you’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to flow with it. We work on that so much, the right moves to the ball. It’s so different from digging.”

The big difference, Dildine said, is that passing isn’t even a defensive skill.

“This is an offensive skill,” she said. “Passing is one of the most beautiful skills in the sport because it requires a lot of power and stability but grace and touch and feel. It is an art.

“It is something that requires a lot of tedious and often times boring training. There’s no glory in being a good passer. It’s the most selfless skill in the sport. And it requires a lot of attention and dedication from people who want to do it well.”

That devotion is tested every day as the passers start practice 45 minutes ahead of their teammates, not counting extra sessions they request.

“Passing is the hardest thing I’ve had to train in volleyball but it’s my absolute favorite aspect,” Bates said. “It’s taken thousands and thousands of reps to get consistently good. You have to train the right technique. You can’t just magically be good at passing. Then it’s mental.

“You have to be able to bounce back if you don’t have a good pass. In high-stress moments, that’s the first contact on your side and you have to dime that ball. I’m very comfortable with that stress. I want to pass the ball on match point, but as a freshman or maybe a sophomore I might not have said that.”

While the skills involved are important, Clark said the mental aspects of passing are the key.

“You can have all the time in the gym in the world but if your mental state isn’t there, you’re not going to be able to pass,” Clark said. “If you’re having a bad passing day, it’s all in your head. That’s part of the reason why I think passing is just such a hard skill to master and to be consistently good at. Physically, you have to be there, but mentally you have to be there all the time.”

The measure of a team’s passing effectiveness is a bit tricky. The official box score only counts the number of opportunities each player had and how many errors she made.

The coaching staff uses a 3-point system to grade each pass — 3 for a near perfect pass to the setter that gives her three options for the set; 2 for a decent pass that gives the setter two options for hitters; and 1 for an off-target pass that has the setter running or requires someone else to take the ball. An ace results in a score of 0.

Annemarie Hickey, the team’s technical coordinator and a pretty fair passer in her day, scores each pass for both teams and Sheffield monitors each player’s numbers in real time. The goal is to pass around 2.4 or 2.5, he said, although that can change depending on how tough of a serving team they’re facing.

Bates said her goal is to hit that 2.4-2.5 target each match.

“If I can do that, that’s ideal and we’re in system and we’re probably going to win the match,” she said. “I like putting that kind of responsibility on myself because I love passing so much. I love the challenge.”

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Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.