The loudest cheers in the sport of volleyball tend to go to the attacks that lead to kills. It is common to hear a "WOO WOO WOO" from a bench when a block goes down for a point.
But none of those plays are possible without high-level play from a volleyball team's defense, and the success of the 2019 Hillsdale College volleyball team, 14-2 and ranked 16th in the country, can be directly attributed to the defense the team has played all year.
Serving as the anchors of the defense are senior libero Taylor Wiese and junior defensive specialist Madie Schider. Together, they patrol the back line of the court, have to make passes that set up the team's offensive plays, and provide crucial coverage on balls that are "blocked" by the defense, but stay on Hillsdale's side of the court. It's a job that requires hair-trigger reaction times, quickness, anticipation and pinpoint accuracy.
They rarely score points, but the points the Chargers do score, is in large part due to their superior play.
Head coach Chris Gravel, fond of numbers and math as a metric for the effectiveness of his team, puts it in relatively simple terms when defining how important defensive play is.
"Good defense means everything. Offensively, if you achieve a 30 percent success rate, you're doing pretty well. But on defense, you need to achieve 89 percent or higher to do well," he said.
To translate, a good offensive performance for a team would be a .300 attack percentage, that is, the percent of attacks a team makes that result in kills. On the other end, good defensive players have serve receive percentages - where they make a pass that's good enough to lead to a quality attack by the offense - is often above .900. Wiese has a serve receive percentage of .983 this season, while Schider is at .952.
"A big part of defense is about attitude." Wiese said. "It's almost like being stupid enough to think you can get to every single ball, giving 100 percent effort on every single play. Other positions have to do something similar, but not on every single play. You have to dive, throw yourself around and not know if you're actually going to hit the ball."
One metric coaches like to use to grade the effectiveness of defensive players is a pass rating that goes from 1 to 2 to 3, with 3 being the best. Those are known as three-option passes, which is defined as a pass that, when sent to the setter, allows the setter three options on whom to set the ball to. The three-option pass is what all defensive players stride for, according to Schider.
"It's that moment of truth, when the ball hits your forearms and comes off, you wonder, will it be a perfect pass or a shank into the stands?" Schider said. "In the moment, you're low, you see the ball coming straight at you and you want the ball to come to you. And you know right away if it's that three-option pass."
A good visual way to tell if a pass is of the three-option variety is to watch how much the setter has to move relative to the pass she receives from a defensive player. In Hillsdale's case, Lindsey Mertz, a two-time All-Conference setter, if she stays relatively still, it was a successful pass.
"We pass to target and that's where the setter should be for the play we want to run," Schider said.
The libero, the position Wiese has so expertly occupied for the past three-plus seasons, is a unique position in the sport. The libero can sub in and out without it counting against a team's limit of subs in a given set. The libero wears a different colored jersey than her teammates, so her substitution pattern can be easily detected. The libero is also the first line of a team's defense, taking on primary responsibility for serve receive passing, the literal first ingredient in an offensive play.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot better at reading," Wiese said. "I catch myself knowing exactly where a hitter intends to hit a ball, I see where their hips and hands are moving, and I make the adjustment. You just have to stay low, know the people you're playing with, and be ready for a high touch off the block."
Wiese currently leads the G-MAC in averaging 6.1 digs per set, which is a career-high for her. She's been named First-Team All-Conference in each of the past two seasons and her 1,898 career digs rank her second in school history. This season she's been named G-MAC Defensive Player of the Week twice, and has gotten specific notice from opposing coaches for her skill.
"If being a good defensive player means succeeding 89 percent of the time, Taylor succeeds at above a 95 percent rate," Gravel said. "She improves the play, setting up the offense at a level most others can't do off serve receive, off defense and off coverage. She also serves well and her serves get us a lot of points."
Wiese has 104 career service aces, most of any Hillsdale player in the past decade.
However, Hillsdale had to open the 2019 season without Wiese, who was recovering from injury. A daunting slate of opponents awaited the Chargers, including Concordia-St. Paul and Florida Southern, the participants in the 2017 NCAA Division II championship match.
Enter Schider, who filled in at the libero position for that weekend. And did she ever deliver, helping Hillsdale to a 3-1 record that helped catapult it into the AVCA Division II Top 25 poll. That weekend, Schider achieved career-highs in digs in back-to-back matches with 27 and 30 digs in matchups with Florida Southern and Central Missouri, another nationally ranked team. Both Schider and Wiese are members of the AVCA 30-dig club, a rarity for teammates to have that distinction.
"She got very consistent on the court for us that weekend," Wiese said of Schider. "She just played her game and played it really well. She touched everything, was all over the court. The match we lost (Central Missouri), we get a couple more kills, we win that one. But Madie's serve receive kept us in it."
"Madie came in as a left-back and we moved her to middle-back," adds Gravel. "The middle back hadn't traditionally been a big strength of ours, but she has turned it into one. She can cover corner to corner, and has become a better attacker for us too."
Coming into the 2019 season, Hillsdale was faced having to replace the offense provided by All-American hitters Paige VanderWall and Kara Vyletel. But one way Hillsdale has helped to make up that difference is in improved defensive play. Dig up hard-hit balls by the opposition. Extend rallies, frustrate the other teams into overpasses or mistakes that can unlock easy points for the Chargers. So while it's not an apples-for-apples replacement for the offense VanderWall and Vyletel provided, it's the team's defense, led by Wiese and Schider, that has helped keep that success level so high this year.
"We just have to keep a level head, knowing everyone is giving us their best and is out to beat us," Schider said. "Every game means something. We have to keep that mentality that there's always more we can do, there's room to improve. We have to stay humble, stay together as a team and if we keep that up, we'll be fine."
"I want to beat every team we play by as much as we possibly can," Wiese said.
Last weekend, Hillsdale made an impressive statement, playing road matches versus Tiffin and Cedarville, two of the other teams who were sharing first place in the G-MAC with the Chargers. All Hillsdale did was post to 3-0 sweeps, winning those six sets by an average of 10.1 points per set.
This weekend, the competition gets even tougher at the Midwest Region Crossover Tournament. Two of Hillsdale's opponents, #10 Lewis and #17 Rockhurst, are in the top 25, while the third, Saginaw Valley State, has a win over Ferris State under its belt this season. With teams this talented, often the "hidden" play of a defense can make the difference between winning and losing.
"Being competitive, playing tough competition, hypes me up," Schider said. "Those two losses we had earlier in the season don't seem real. You're just like 'OK, we're going to go out and get this win now.' Winning just gives a boost to everyone."
The caliber of players Taylor Wiese and Madie Schider are, they give their fans and teammates plenty of reasons to be hyped up, and to enjoy the winning they have been such an important part of over the past few years.