Roundnet underwent an offensive explosion from 2015 to 2018. Rallies dropped dramatically, serving went from a moderate disadvantage (some servers were still net positive in 2015) to so underpowered that the Spikeball Roundnet Association is considering changing the rules to bring the game back into balance. What happened in those three years?
The most commonly suggested answer to the question of why offense has surpassed defense is that we have learned how to hit. In the early days of roundnet, the players just blasted the ball, swinging from the shoulder and maybe, maybe, pulling their shot back past their hips. Now, there is a focus on craft instead of power. Players swing from the wrist, not the shoulder, and are more worried about placement than power. Hitting the ball lower is prioritized.
However, while all of those things are true, focusing on hitting alone ignores another fundamental of the offense game. Setting. A good set, to the advanced player, drops onto or near the net. As players develop the ability to consistently drop their sets on net, different hitting angles and options open up.
Any elite athlete is able to track multiple variables simultaneously in their head at once. Advanced players worry about dropping their sets onto the net; elite ones have also experimented with controlling the height that their sets peak. Lower sets have distinct advantages over higher ones, although they carry their own risks and drawbacks. Elite players decide in fractions of seconds both where and how high they want to put the ball, and have the skill to make good on their decisions.
In 2015 the entire roundnet world was chasing Chico Spikes. This picture, from their 2015 national championship, shows Skyler playing the ball at his chest height and it rising a foot or two into the air before dropping onto the net. At it’s peak, it is approximately 6 feet off of the ground.
Only a few points later, Shaun chose to play a set from his hip pocket, which rose about 18 inches, and peaked at about 4 feet off the ground.
Both of these sets were dropping onto the net, but what we can see here is players beginning to choose not only where to put their sets in two dimensions, but also how high they want them to rise.
Why? What are the pros and cons of a lower set as opposed to a higher set? One disadvantage to a set that rises over a hitter’s head is the loss of vision. In this picture, Jarratt’s set rises over Devin’s head, and to track the ball he has to turn his eyes away from the net. In a sport where net awareness is paramount, little things like this make a world of difference.
Another important advantage to a lower set is that the defenders have less time to read and react to the set. Proper defensive positioning is based heavily on where a set is dropping (more on this in a later article). The lower the set, the sooner the hit, and the less time the defense has to find the best position.
Tyler Cisek (soon to be Tyler “World Beater” Cisek) was studying film in 2015, and it seems he learned from Shaun’s hip pocket low sets. In this sequence from the Chicago grand slam in 2016, he plays the set from his hip, it rises less than a foot, and Ryan is able to get it past Shaun.
Shaun read the sets placement, and very nearly put himself there for a great defensive touch. The ball just squeaked in between his shin and dropping hand. If he had another half second, he would have found it with his hand and probably earned a break.
“Ahhh” I can hear you saying. “So all I have to do to win 2 national championships like Shaun or Tyler is set the ball from my hip pocket and keep it low. Its so easy. Thanks for the tip, see you when I am famous.”
Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple. A low set means less time for the defense to find its best position, but it also means less time for your teammate to make a play on the ball. Just two points earlier, Tyler made nearly the exact same set, but Ryan wasn’t able to put it away, and the commentators blamed Tyler for not giving him enough time to get to the ball.
What was the difference? On the “bad” set, the ball was pushed a little farther away from Ryan, and he didn’t have time to get around the ball. All he could do instead was flick it down, and Skyler was able to make a play on the ball after it caught a pocket.
Most of the 2016 season, Tyler was receiving his sets low, around his hips, and keeping them from rising. Playing with this sort of speed makes it nearly impossible for defenses to find the best position, but if your accuracy isn’t perfect, your teammate has less time to make an adjustment.
Greatness lies in growing, adapting, and learning. 2018 was a dominant performance from Cisek Showalter, and interestingly Tyler had moved away from only setting low. Here is a picture from their National Championship. He still receives the ball at his hip, but plays it up to make sure PJ has enough time to choose whatever hit he wants. With the time to set his feet, PJ fakes a hard backhand to move Jarratt out of the way and flicks a medium shot directly at the camera. Easy point.
What does this all mean? It means that greatness isn’t as easy as practicing your fundamentals. Setting, serving, hitting, are necessary skills. But the best players in the world are processing mountains of information at rapid speeds, and are making decisions instead of reacting. We often talk about hitters reading the defense, but so do setters. Just like there is no one best hit, there is no universal ideal set height, but in some situations a higher or lower set is useful. We all know that if our teammate is 40 feet away after chasing a ball down to give him some extra time. But the best of the best seem to have a bit more understanding than that.