The classes continue with our Rotation 201 series, where we study the strategies and tactics used in each rotation by the best teams in NCAA and International volleyball. We’ve now reached Rotation 5. Like Rotation 4, which we studied the past two weeks, Rotation 5 is a setter-front rotation, which means the setter is in the front row (in this case, in zone 3), and there are only 2 front row hitters. Our Rotation 4 series showed how NCAA and International teams handle these setter-front rotations differently. Since most of our readers are playing by American rules, we’ll study NCAA teams in this Rotation 5 article.
Here is the alignment that Nebraska used in the 2018 NCAA Final Four.
This is probably the most common alignment in high-level NCAA volleyball. Nebraska has a passing sub in for their back row opposite, so their front row outside hitter can be pushed out of serve receive. Many NCAA teams use this substitution, to allow their front row outside to just focus on attacking. Nebraska also stacks their setter and middle attacker over on the left side of the court. Some teams (as we’ll see below) push these two players over to the right side of the court.
Let’s watch Nebraska sideout in Rotation 5:
We see that Nebraska is using their middle exclusively behind the setter on Slide patterns. With a strong Slide attacker and an outside who can focus solely on attacking, this is a strong rotation for Nebraska. Note that Nebraska continues to keep their middles on (or even slightly behind) the attack line. This allows an easy entry for the middle, which keeps her available even when the pass is not perfect. It does, however, require this middle to watch the server and open up to either side, to make sure she doesn’t get in the way of any passers. Some teams (including BYU, which we’ll watch next), stack their setter and middle farther to the left, which makes it easier for the middle to avoid the serve, but makes for a longer, more difficult release for the setter.
In their Final Four run last year, BYU used two different alignments in Rotation 5:
Sometimes, they keep their hitters spread, with their outside on the left side of the court and the middle on the right. This eliminates the option for their middle to hit a slide, but makes for the easiest possible release for the setter; she’s already standing in position to set. When BYU runs this rotation, the middle could enter into the center of the court and hit in front of the setter, but BYU generally just has her stay behind the setter and hit a traditional back set, similar to a right side. We’ll see that on video below.
BYU also adds a variation where they stack their middle and setter over on the left side of the court, similar to Nebraska. They stack a bit farther than Nebraska, which makes things a little more difficult on the setter, but easier on the middle, especially if she wants to stay in front of the setter. When BYU uses this alignment, they can keep the middle in front or run her behind on a Slide. Let’s see the video:
BYU started the match in the first alignment but changed to the second. Throughout this series, we’ve seen that high-level teams often have a Plan B for each rotation. We recommend you do the same!
Let’s turn now to the 2019 season and one of the favorites to make the Final Four, University of Pittsburgh.
Their alignment is similar to Nebraska (and BYU’s Plan B), with one exception. Pittsburgh does not sub a defensive specialist for their opposite, but instead, they keep her in the back row. She’s not a major part of their sideout offense, but she remains in the game to defend and occasionally attack out of the back row in transition. Instead, Pittsburgh has both outsides in serve receive. Most teams in the NCAA can’t rely on their front row outsides to pass as much as Pittsburgh does.
An additional benefit of keeping the front row outside in the reception alignment is that the libero passes in Zone 6. Having your best passer (often your libero) passing in the center of the court is a nice bonus. Otherwise, we see the Pittsburgh sideout game look similar to Nebraska:
Like Nebraska, Pittsburgh features a strong Slide-hitting middle attacker that they consistently keep behind the setter. They make her even harder to defend by varying the distance of her Slide- sometimes wide to the pin and sometimes in close behind the setter.
Finally, let’s look at current NCAA #1 Baylor. In our Rotation 4 analysis, we saw them use varied patterns to create space for their dominant outside attacker, Yossiana Pressley. In Rotation 5, she’s in the back row, and they continue to feature her heavily:
We see here that they keep her in the game in the back row, but pull her out of serve receive. We saw China use this tactic with a passing opposite to free up their big outside, Zhu Ting, to attack out of the back row. Baylor does the same here, which means their front row outside is passing. They keep their hitters split, similar to the first variation we saw BYU use.
Not many teams have such an effective back row attack, but Baylor takes full advantage of it! Their middle stays behind the setter and hits a traditional back set, and also works in front of the setter to be available to hit a quick.
All four teams in this article follow similar principles, but different tactics and methods. In Rotation 5, the most important decision is to decide whether your middle will hit Slides behind the setter, Quicks in front of the setter, or a combination of both. Then, decide whether you want to spread your hitters or stack everyone on the left side of the court. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your individual players and you can design a sideout offense to maximize them!