Real Volleyball

Some of the pictures I took only have meaning to someone intimately familiar with the sport. This next photograph shows a setter jump-setting a medium height set for a middle hitter, with the hitter almost finished with his approach, and about to jump. I love this picture, but it may not be as compelling on purely emotional or compositional grounds.

A very similar situation with a different team. This time, the hitter's arms are already on their way up: he's closer to the jump than in the previous picture

This is perhaps the sports photograph that I spent the most time chasing after. I spent hours knowing exactly what I wanted, but just missing it, for a variety of reasons.

First, some volleyball background.

Each team fields 6 players, 3 of which stand in the front of the court, near the net, and 3 of which stand in the back. Any player who starts a play in the front court may jump up and attack a ball into the opponent's court, but players who start out in the back court may not approach the net and jump up to attack the ball. This is to ensure that you don't have all six players up at the net hitting; it ensures some balance in play and position. Similarly, back row players may not run up to the net and jump up to block a shot. The three front row players are there to hit and block, and the back row players are there to handle balls that land deep in the court.

Typically, the front row three players on one side of the court attempt to attack the ball, and the three front row players on the other side of the court attempt to block the attackers. Since there is one blocker for each possible attacker, this works out reasonably. Often you will see blockers moving rapidly along the net, keeping "their" attacker in view, waiting to jump up and block that attacker's hit.

In order to create an effective offense, most high-end teams run what is called a quick offense. The idea is to get the ball from the passing players hands into the setting players hands and in front of the hitter as quickly as possible. Typical amateur players try to hit sets that peak at heights perhaps six feet above the net. Top level players can hit sets that only rise above the net a few feet.

Another way to make the offense more effective is to use a "shoot" set, where the ball goes more or less horizontally, shooting out to an outside player, rather than taking a more leisurely, higher path. All of this is done in an attempt to surprise the defenders, to catch them flat footed because they did not realize that the ball could get to "their" attacker so quickly.

There is a loophole, however, when it comes to back row players attacking the ball. A back row player may jump up and attack the ball so long as they leave the ground at least 10 feet away from the net. This rule allows the extra attackers, but requires them to be superb athletes, since it takes a lot of strength and skill to jump ten feet forward and still be high enough that you can attack the ball.

I noticed, at one tournament, that one of the teams was using a four attacker offense some of the time, with one player attacking out of the back row. This was particularly effective, because the other teams were not expecting it: their three defenders would jump up to block the three front row attackers, and by the time the back row attacker was in the air, it was too late for the defensive players to jump again. The back row attacker often had no blockers at all.

This is an unusual play to see run at the amateur level, let alone repeatedly, and I realized that I had a chance to take a very unusual picture. To do so, however, I had to be on the right side of the court (opposite where the hit would take place) and at a time that this particular player was in the back court.

I'm sure I spent two hours following this team and that player around the court that day. Each time the teams switched sides, so did I. Each time my player was in the front row, I relaxed: good volleyball was to be had, but not the shot I was waiting for. Whenever he was in the back court, I followed him with the camera like a hawk. Finally, everything fell into place, and I had a chance to take the shot.

With all of this build-up, you may find the next picture to be anti-climactic, but it has everything. The ref looks on, the blocker is up, the middle hitter (having already landed) turns to watch, as does the setter (who probably just executed a back-set). And there is the hitter, still way up in the air, his face contorted with effort, his wrist a blur, as he smacks the ball off into the other court.

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