Sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Or at least get the old dog to try something different.
Russ Rose knows a little bit about volleyball. He has 1,220 Division I coaching wins and seven NCAA titles — both numbers are NCAA records.
However, for nearly every match of his 38 previous seasons at Penn State, he has handed the keys to the offense to one setter. There is one quarterback in charge on the court, pure and simple. Sometimes it’s not clear who the No. 1 setter is with two or three women competing for the job, and sometimes the starter gets pulled because of injury or under-performing, but generally the Nittany Lions have used a 5-1 offense — five hitters/position players and one full-time setter.
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Three weeks into this season, however, there has been a change. Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher are sharing those keys to the offense as No. 2 Penn State (7-0) heads into its home opener at 7 p.m. Friday against Yale at Rec Hall.
“We kind of went with it the first tournament, and it’s been going well ever since,” Detering said Tuesday afternoon before a practice in Rec Hall’s South Gym. “There are still areas to improve on, but it’s really neat to see how awesome our team can be. We’ve been playing so well, but we can get so much better with this lineup.”
The seeds for the move were planted last season, when Rose pondered the idea while watching his team struggle through the final weeks of the regular season. They used it a little in the NCAA regional semifinals, with great strategic effect, to nearly upset top-seeded Nebraska, but Detering said the topic really didn’t come up again during the offseason.
“It wasn’t until the end of preseason (practices) that we started actually playing with it,” she said. “There are advantages to both, but I think the awesome part of the 6-2 is how different it is.”
Detering, who is left-handed, is a right-side hitter for her three front-row rotations and is a setter for her three back-row rotations. Weiskircher picks up the other half of the setting duties when Detering is in the front row, while Nia Reed subs in for hitting.
“It’s a really good balance,” senior outside hitter Simone Lee said, “and a really good opportunity to use every person that we have, every tool that we have on our team, to really come on top and be successful.”
Rose has tutored plenty of All-American setters through the years: Micha Hancock, Alisha Glass, Sam Tortorello, Bonnie Bremner and Salima Davidson among them. Some were fixtures in the lineup for three or four years, sometimes they were the only official setter on the roster. Rose has always expected a lot, and pushed hard on his quarterbacks.
He has tried using a 6-2 offense before, including for a few games in 2007 with sophomores Glass and Jessica Yanz. Glass eventually won the job outright, and four straight NCAA titles ensued (the last with Kristin Carpenter at setter).
Rose is just trying to get as much offense on the court as he can. Against Stanford on Sept. 1, Detering posted a triple-double with a career-high 11 kills, 23 assists and 10 digs. It’s a pleasant addition to a team that at times has seen 20- and even 30-kill nights from Lee and Alli Frantti, or big performances from Haleigh Washington, but not enough balanced production.
“We have a couple positions that aren’t producing scoring opportunities,” Rose said. “We have to find a way to spread out the offense so teams can’t say it’s the Alli-and-Simone Show or the Haleigh Show. Our best teams were when we had five people that could legitimately lead the team in scoring on any given day and nobody was competing to lead the team in scoring. Everybody was competing together to lead the team.”
It is still early for a season that lasts into December. The experiment may remain — plenty of other teams have gotten to final fours and won titles with a 6-2 offense — or Rose may want to return to his traditional formula.
If it means teaching some new tricks to the old dog, Rose will be happy to learn.
“If we have success playing with two, I’ll play with two,” Rose said. “I want to win. In spite of what all the other coaches are interested in, developing character and things like that, I’m not opposed to thinking about winning is being a nice byproduct of what we’re doing.”