On this occasion, senior player Laura Jensen dives for a ball heading straight for the ground. People watching cringe as they hear the sound of bare skin scraping against hardwood floor.
It’s 3:30 on a Monday afternoon in the M.A.C. Center, and the volleyball team is practicing for its matches later that week.
On this Monday, the team prepares for a match at nationally ranked Ohio on Thursday, but the team practices like this for every match it plays.
Still, even though the goal of practice — preparation for matches — stays the same all the time, practices themselves vary greatly.
“What we work on changes every day,” Jensen says. “It just depends on what we need to tune up on for the weekend.”
The floor of the M.A.C. Center is separated into three volleyball courts, two of which are in use. In the center court, players work on hitting and blocking; on the end court, other players participate in passing drills.
Jensen, one of the players working on passing, yells in frustration as the ball heads away from the center of the net and instead goes sideways, almost into the bleachers.
Kent State coach Glen Conley, dressed in sweatpants and a Kent State T-shirt and baseball cap, watches the hitting and blocking but keeps an eye on the end court.
After another bad pass, Conley yells over.
“Stop backing up!” he says, taking a couple of steps toward the end court. The players had done too much of that over the weekend, when the Flashes lost matches to Miami and Bowling Green.
Soon afterward, Jensen calls for a ball and passes it so that it lands softly at the base of the net. Her teammates congratulate her.
“We want to work on passing, keeping movements fast, calling the ball early and being aggressive,” Jensen says.
Meanwhile, on the center court Conley has strung a wire a few feet above the net. It’s for the hitters to use during the blocking drill.
“That’s to teach you to hit high,” senior Anne Zakelj says. “If the wire’s up high above the net, then your goal is to hit over that — not just over the net, but over the wire. That’s kind of like a block if their hands are up. You’re either trying to hit the tops of their hands or just over their hands.”
Most of the drills Conley uses on Monday deal with fundamentals.
“At this point in time, we have the plays in that we’re going to be running,” he says. “We’re just trying to get them cleaned up and we’re trying to get our techniques just to make sure we’re on target.
“A lot of times, fundamentals is what wins these games at the end of the seasons. It’s easy sometimes to overlook that. We try not to.”
Although this practice is intense, Conley ends it in a lighter way. He stands in one spot behind the net at the center court as his players try to hit him with their serves. Those who manage to hit him get ice cream.
“We were all actually really close,” says Zakelj, who comes close but does not hit Conley. “That just goes to show that the serving practice has helped. We were all close, but hitting a specific person without him moving at all — I don’t know how many square feet of court that is — it’s hard.”
So how many players win ice cream?
“Too many,” Conley says with a laugh.
Practice begins promptly at 3 p.m. At center court, Conley diagrams strategy on a white board.
Once again, he separates his team into passers and hitters/blockers.
The hitters and blockers work on jumping drills at the center court, with the hitters trying to hit over blocks.
“What was that?” Conley asks Zakelj after she mis-hits a ball, sending it long. “You were way too early on that.”
Later he tells sophomore setter Katie Veatch she is setting too high, giving opposing players time to get over to block a spike.
Sometimes Conley demonstrates himself what he wants the players to do. After freshman Lauren Jones hits a ball out of bounds wide, he tells her to stop swinging her arm across her body and shows her the proper, straight arm motion.
Jones’ next try lands inside the white line.
“I really believe that demonstration is very important. But it has to be good demonstration, so I probably shouldn’t be doing it; I’m not as good as I used to be,” Conley says, laughing.
Zakelj believes Conley’s demonstrations help.
“It’s helpful to see a coach do what he’s asking you to do, so that you know that he knows what you have to do, he has the control to do it and you’re just striving to do what he did,” she says.
After hitting drills, during which a player hits a television cart set up behind the court, sending remotes and printer ink cartridges flying, and serving drills, when players try to serve the ball under the wire, strategic work begins.
Conley separates his team into starters and scout team members. Members of the scout team head to the far court to learn Ohio’s playbook while the starters remain on the center court to work on their offense.
As the starters practice the offense, Conley stops them constantly to tell them that they are doing things wrong. Two words come out of his mouth often: “focus” and “fast.”
“We want speed of decision-making and speed of movement,” he says. “Within one play, within like probably two (or) three seconds, (players have) got a lot of decisions to make, and if they’re not focused, they’re going to make some bad decisions.”
Conley thinks speed is one of his team’s biggest strengths. For this match, the coach thinks that his team has a speed advantage against Ohio and that the Bobcats will be trying to slow the Flashes down just as he tries to speed them up.
After the scout team runs the Ohio offense and defense against the starters, the practice ends with what Conley calls “a competitive game” between the two groups.
Just like practice itself, the game is intense, but Conley says the intensity of this game ends when the whistle blows at about 6 p.m.
“We don’t take it home with us,” Conley says.
“Today’s my birthday,” junior captain Vaiva Laniauskas says. She turned 22 years old Nov. 7.
Laniauskas, along with the rest of the team, gets to participate in a lighter practice.
“We’re going to back it down a little bit,” Conley says, “probably try to get their mind off of the game a little bit.”
To accomplish this, Conley brings a ball from a different sport to practice: an orange-and-purple foam football.
Separated into two teams, the players begin and end practice with a football game. Veatch wins the first game for her team, 3-0, on a field goal. The other team gets an 8-0 victory in game two after a long Jensen touchdown catch from junior Krista Groce and later a safety.
Laniauskas says it’s just the second time this season the team has played football, but that practices the day before matches are usually lighter.
“You always want it to go kind of more low-key, so that your body can regroup, your muscles can recuperate and then you’re ready to go full-go tomorrow,” she says.
In between the two football games, of course, the team practices just as hard as Monday and Tuesday.
The scout team once again plays the starters.
“We put on the other team’s jerseys, and we are those players,” says Laniauskas, a scout who wears No. 3, the number of Ohio senior Stephanie Blackburn.
“We learn all their plays and how they play defense, so that we can play like they do against our first team.”
Zakelj believes that type of drill helps a lot.
“You know what to look for when you’re playing, and that’s what helps you figure out what shots are open,” she says. “If the set’s a little lower, do you have the time to do this, or if the set’s perfect, what angle is open for you to hit?”
Soon, after a serve from one of his starters hits the net and fails to go over, Conley stops practice and shouts at his team.
“Don’t miss your serves!” Conley says. “Bowling Green had 10 service errors (against Ohio) Sunday. They lost 25-30, 28-30 and 30-32. Do you think they’d like to have some of those serves back?”
“He’s trying to get us to realize that this opportunity of us having a chance to win a championship will not come every single year,” Laniauskas says. “We’re not going to have the same girls every single year with the ability to win a championship.”
Contact volleyball reporter Doug Gulasy at [email protected]