Unlike many volleyball coaches who scheme their offense around high-flying outside hitters, LSU’s Fran Flory believes in putting her attack in the hands of her middle blockers.
That should pay big dividends this year.
Senior Michelle Williams and sophomore Desiree Elliott return on the front line to form a dominant one-two punch and spearhead LSU’s inside-out offensive approach.
They look to pick up where they left off last season when LSU opens 2011 by welcoming Alcorn State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State and Miami to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the Tiger Classic. Action in the two-day round-robin begins Friday.
“The fact that we’ve built our offense around our middles means our middles get more sets and more opportunities than most other middles across the country,” Flory said.
Williams and Elliott, because of LSU’s scheme, serve more as “middle hitters” than blockers.
Last year, Elliott had 266 kills and notched a .290 hitting percentage during one of the great freshman campaigns in LSU volleyball history.
In addition to earning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year recognition, Elliott became only the second LSU rookie to ever earn a spot on the All-SEC first team.
Williams, meanwhile, enters her fourth year as a starter on LSU’s front line.
Last year, as a junior, Williams had 334 kills and hit at a team-high .303 clip. She picked up All-SEC second team recognition after appearing in 2008 on the league’s All-Freshman team.
Together, Elliott and Williams were among only four LSU players to see action in all 107 sets over 30 matches.
Their combined 600 kills accounted for 39 percent of the team’s offense.
“If you have one block per game, then you’re pretty successful,” Flory said. “If you’re successful offensively, you’re killing three-plus balls a game. I’ll give away a block if I can gain two more points or three more points offensively. We’re trying to gain points is what we’re doing with our whole philosophy.”
Elliott is listed at 6-foot in the LSU media guide, but Flory said “she’s probably 5-10.” Williams stands 6-2, also a bit undersized for the position.
On the recruiting trail, though, Flory seeks out middles who fit LSU’s scheme.
They need to be quick. They need to be athletic.
Size is lagniappe.
“We want fast, dynamic people,” Flory said. “I think Michelle and Desi are testaments to that.”
Flory went to Texas for both players, pulling Williams out of Magnolia High north of Houston and Elliott out of Cypress Woods High in the northeast corner of the state.
In helping the Tigers run their streak to six straight SEC West championships, the two have continued a tradition of strong play by LSU middle blockers, excelling at the very position where Ivan Kuzmic (2004-05), Lauren DeGirolamo (2006-09) and Brittnee Cooper (2006-09) once made headlines.
The lineage of star power on the front line is certainly by design.
A key moment in Flory’s tenure at LSU came when she sat down with a pile of statistics and revaluated her offensive approach. She saw while outside hitters usually led the nation in scoring, the players who hit for the highest percentage, quite naturally, were the ones closest to the net.
“Why are we not giving our middle blockers more opportunities?” Flory asked herself. “Let’s build the offense around them.”
Once the middle blockers started to score, Flory saw that more opportunities opened up for the outside hitters. Defenses weren’t sure where to focus their efforts.
Think of it like a basketball team with a strong inside game.
But just as in basketball, the point guard in volleyball - the setter - must have the savvy to get the ball to her playmakers in order for the offense to go.
Freshman Malorie Pardo and sophomore Shelby Pursley, who made only three appearances last season, are LSU’s newcomers at setter. Baton Rouge native Brittany Johnson left a hole there after starting all 30 matches as a senior.
“With two new setters,” Flory said, “the challenge this year is how effective can our setting be to keep up with these two all-conference middle blockers.”
If the setting keeps up, Williams and Elliott could be right in the middle of another championship run.