A new high school fall sports season will be upon us in less than a month but some good memories remain from the Talawanda sports calendar of the last school year. The most memorable for me, though, was the chance to sit on the bench for a volleyball match and see the action while hearing the comments from players not in the game as well as joining the team huddles and getting a deeper insight into the strategy.
Covering sports for four decades and taking pictures from the sidelines I had an up-close view of the players and coaches but moving just a few feet closer and sitting on the bench provided a whole different view.
An invitation by Talawanda volleyball coach Ernie Gilbert to sit on the bench and take part in the pre-match team meeting was too good an offer to pass up. It turned out to be Gilbert’s only season as Talawanda coach, as he resigned last spring.
The date was Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, as the Talawanda team took on Wilmington in a Southwest Ohio Conference match.
At the pregame meeting with the team, Gilbert began by writing the letters BUSU on the whiteboard, before drawing a sketch of the playing court on the board to diagram Wilmington’s rotation style of play and how to counter it.
Jokingly, he asked his players, “Want to buy a vowel?” to which one player said, “A”. He then wrote that letter under the “B”. Somebody said, “Ball.”
He went on with his explanation of the play and at the end asked if they had figured out what BUSU meant. After some guesses, the players shouted as a group, “BALL UP, STAND UP.”
It was a lesson he wanted them to remember—when the opponent’s ball is hit toward their back line, they need to stand up to better gauge whether it was heading out of bounds because Wilmington had several players who hit the ball back on a line rather than with arc, making it hard to judge fair or out of bounds.
In their pregame meeting, he also reminded his team that they earned an easy win at Wilmington earlier in the season but to take this one seriously.
“This is a championship game,” he told his players. “Win this one and no one can keep you from the league championship.”
When Gilbert met with his players on the floor after warm-ups and just before introductions, he reminded them of strategy discussed in the lockerroom meeting and then added, “Let’s have some fun. Let’s win a championship.”
That fun theme was repeated many times during the match from the sidelines, during timeouts and in the breaks between sets.
“Remember to smile more,” he would tell players coming off the floor following a player rotation.
Sipping from a bottle of Coke Zero as the teams warmed up, Gilbert said he drinks one before each match and has a Cherry Tootsie Pop.
Asked if it’s for nutrition or superstition, he replied, “A little of both.”
During his games, he is on his feet the whole time moving back and forth in front of the bench, talking to his players, making sure they saw plays on the court and understand the good or bad nuances of them to have players ready when they get on the floor.
Gilbert, who comes from a college volleyball background, said his assistant coaches Emily Williams and Derek Benson have high school coaching backgrounds and know the roster and paperwork details better than he does.
“They are wonderful,” he said, as Williams prepared the evening’s roster for the first set, after checking with him about the planned player rotation.
During warm-ups prior to the match, Gilbert watches the opponent players for tips to pass to his team. He sees one player is left-handed and therefore more likely to hit to the other side. He watches for players with a tendency to hit one direction or the other, adding that if they do that in warm-ups when all the balls are in the same general spot by a coach, they will likely do the same thing in the pressure of the game.
He has coached his team to hit balls in different directions and, in fact, makes it part of a drill so they get used to spraying balls around the court. Each player position on the floor is referred to by a number and he requires players to hit to those spots in practice or keep hitting until they succeed.
“I’m asking the girls to not practice just one shot,” he said. “I ask all the girls to have three shots they are comfortable with.”
Players on the bench supported teammates on the floor in the first set, getting to their feet for every point scored. Several players were enjoying it but junior Ana Richter suggested they do “the wave” and they passed the word down the row. It took several points to get it right, but they started a wave from the coaches outward, drawing laughs.
Jumping up at every point had largely ended by the time the second set started, but players were enthusiastic in their applause and cheers when things went right for Talawanda…and a lot went right for the Braves.
They won the first set 25-7, the second 25-15 and then finished with a 25-8 score with many of the jayvee players in on the action.
Sitting on the bench with the players, a couple things quickly become obvious that are not so obvious after years of watching volleyball matches from the seats. The first is that the players on the court are under the direction of the team’s setter, as well as the coach on the sidelines. Players must talk to remind each other of where they need to go in certain situations.
Gilbert said he meets with the setter prior to the match to review strategy and will often turn over the team to assistant coach Emily Williams during timeouts while he pulls the setter aside to talk to her separately.
“I talk to the setter. She has more authority on the floor,” Gilbert said. “I do not want to overrule her, she’s the authority to the players, even more than the captains. If I don’t agree with something, I’ll tell her privately. I don’t want to undermine her.”
At one point in set two, he told sophomore Haley Jena she was going into the game and she asked, “Where do I go?”
Gilbert told her, “They will tell you and if they don’t, take it as license to tell them where you are going.”
Late in the second set, he told junior Ana Richter during a timeout, “Be sure to be vocal when you’re in the middle and tell them where you want them to go.”
Another routine that is not immediately obvious from the stands is that many of the player rotations are predetermined, in some cases even before the set starts or at least several minutes before the player is going to enter the court.
At one point in set two, there was some confusion about a rotation even with the Braves comfortably in front and Gilbert called timeout. The issue was not with that match, but with making sure players knew what went wrong so it did not repeat itself in the upcoming league finale with Ross or in the tournament.
The coach explained that he will make substitutions beyond those, if someone on the floor is having trouble and he thinks a sub is needed.
“It’s a little more hectic if it’s close,” he said.
Gilbert used the match to move several players from the jayvee to the varsity roster in preparation for the upcoming sectional tournament. The third set that night saw those younger players moved into the lineup and between sets two and three, he told the regulars to help them out.
“Bench players, be vocal,” he said. “Talk to the player in your position. Make sure they know where they are supposed to be.”
Gilbert praised senior Hannah Terrell for her ability to hit the line, at one point driving four straight shots down the line that opponents either hit at an angle that drove them toward the bleachers or were so close to the line they could not be played.
“She’s a monster,” one player said from the bench, amid the applause for one such shot as Talawanda went up 14-1 in the third set.
Talawanda easily won the match, clinching the SWOC championship which they cemented two nights later with a win over Ross, to put them at 14-0 in league play and 21-1 overall.