Not just aces: Why volleyball serves are more than meets the eye

Baylor setter Hannah Lockin dribbles the ball an odd number of times before each serve, and that has helped her record a career-high 23 aces this season. Baylor Athletics

PITTSBURGH -- Sometimes when Stanford's Meghan McClure is playing volleyball for fun with friends -- not the elite thing she does for the defending national champion Cardinal -- they'll ask her to serve at them for real. This doesn't end well for her pals.

"They'll be like, 'The ball moves around so much! It's like a knuckleball in baseball,'" McClure said. "They usually don't know that. There are certain serves that just die. Or they rise up and hit you."

There's a lot to marvel at when you're watching the women's NCAA volleyball final four, which begins with Thursday's semifinals (7 and 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) at PPG Paints Arena. But never underestimate the importance of the serve. The teams here -- No. 1 seed Baylor, No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 7 Minnesota -- would all say that matches are often won and lost based on serving.

That doesn't necessarily mean how many aces a team gets, although those are always great. But it's also about how effective the server is at putting opponents on the defensive. If the serve receiver gets a good pass to her setter, allowing the team to be in system with its offense, then the serving team loses its advantage.

"You're aiming to get teams out of system, and you have such a big advantage when their setter is on the run," said Wisconsin's Tiffany Clark, a senior libero who understands this from both aspects: She is one of the Badgers' top servers (27 aces) and serve receivers.

This is Volleyball 101 for those who participate in the sport, but for more casual observers, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to serving. First off is the type of serve, and there are two basic ones, with variations based on the individual player.

For a topspin serve, the player tosses the ball with spin and hits it with her whole hand, similar to how she would hit a kill. With the float serve, she tosses the ball without spin, then hits with the palm of her hand in more of a pushing or popping motion.

"Really good topspin serves are difficult; they can tail one way or another," said McClure, a junior outside hitter who has 26 aces this season. "But a good float serve is hard to beat. Topspin are more predictable in flight; receiving them is just more like a dig. With float serves, the ball can rise on you at the last second, or it can dive, or go side to side. So that makes it hard."

There are also hybrid types of serves that mix elements of both. Stanford senior setter Jenna Gray started working on one during the summer before her sophomore year while "just messing around at camp." Coach Kevin Hambly saw it and liked it.

"Serving is definitely a mental game, just like free throw shooting. Anyone can serve a ball into a 30-by-30-foot space, but it's about how do you do it well?" Wisconsin middle blocker Dana Rettke

"I toss it like I would a float serve, and then I try to snap over the top of it to add topspin," said Gray, who has 28 aces this season. "So it's half-float, half-spin. It was a little out of control at first; it's a hard serve to keep in. I would say back then, I put more spin on it, and I had more errors.

"Now it leans more toward the float side; it's effective and I can still drive it deep, but I don't miss nearly as much."

Players can jump-serve with either type, although not everyone jumps with a float serve. And there are different ways to toss the ball on the serve. Some topspin jump servers who want a lot of power and speed use the same hand for the toss -- which they try to get very high in the air -- as they do for the hit. Others use their opposite hand for the toss, while some use both hands to toss.

It's really about what's comfortable and repeatable, while also being effective. Similar to serving in tennis, putting in golf or shooting free throws in basketball, volleyball players strive to have the same routine and rhythm when serving.

Of course, the basket is stationary and the distance exactly the same for every free throw in basketball, whereas a server in volleyball changes speed and the areas on court she's targeting. Still, Wisconsin's 6-foot-8 junior middle blocker, Dana Rettke, who played basketball until she was a high school sophomore, agrees with the free throw analogy. In fact, her description of her pre-serve routine sounds about the same as free throw routine.

"I bounce the ball three times, spin it, hold it, take a breath, and then serve," said Rettke, who has 35 aces this season. "Serving is definitely a mental game, just like free throw shooting. Anyone can serve a ball into a 30-by-30-foot space, but it's about how do you do it well?"

Minnesota's CC McGraw said she didn't spend much time thinking about her serve when she was playing club ball. But it became a much bigger focus in college, notably her drop serves. Those are floats that seem, as the name implies, to drop suddenly.

"You want to keep your motion the same, but hit it about 60%," McGraw said, explaining that it's a bit like a changeup in baseball or softball. "If you do that and get the good contact, it drops."

Baylor setter Hannah Lockin said she's changed her serving routine a few times. And while it might be a bit superstitious, the one she has now "requires" an odd number of bounces.

"Usually seven," she said, laughing. "I don't know why, but I just like seven. In the summer, I put in so many serves every day. Not really expecting there would be that much difference this season. But there has been a difference after getting the reps in."

Lockin has 23 aces this year, one more than her first two seasons combined. She also explains that it's important to consider adrenaline when you're serving. If you're hyped up after winning a big point and/or if it's late in a set or match, it's all the more crucial to take a deep breath and recalibrate before the serve.

Gray figured that out earlier in her career, when she realized she tended to have too many service errors right after getting one of the favorite plays of any setter: the dump kill. So it was important to remind herself to reset and calm down.

That goes back to routine. Clark now lifts her foot -- it's been called a "giddy-up step" -- as a trigger to fire the muscle memory. Some players talk to themselves as they bounce the ball. For Gray, it's a message of self-affirmation; for Rettke, a reminder to be aggressive.

The latter is particularly important for all servers. Viewers will groan when a player serves long or into the net at a crucial point in the match, and might think, "Just get it in!" But if you send over a cupcake, you'll be eaten alive. Good serving can't be risk-free.

Wisconsin freshman Izzy Ashburn has 45 aces this season, the most of any player at this final four. She said servers need a "go-for-it" mentality to be successful.

"Our team talks a lot about courage," Ashburn said. "Be the one to speak up, ask questions. And it plays into being on court because on the biggest points, you have to make big plays."

Of course, not every player serves; some are subbed out for serving specialists such as the Cardinal's Sidney Wilson. The specialists have a microfocus on serving, and they also tend to help their teammates with it. College coaches work on serving a fair amount in practice.

"In high school, a lot of players haven't really worked on their serve, or they don't really have space on the court to develop a great serve," Hambly said, referring to courts often being in smaller areas for high school or club ball, without much room to give the server a run-up. "So we end up changing a lot of serves, or at least cleaning up the mechanics of their serves. The biggest difference in almost every match is the serve-pass game. I would be surprised if every coach didn't say that."

When teams get on serving runs, it can change the entire complexion of a match. Take Stanford's regional final against Penn State, when the Cardinal were down 19-13 and battled back to make it 22-19 with Gray going back to serve. The odds were still in Penn State's favor to win the set, but then Gray served six consecutive points to win the set, and the Cardinal ended up sweeping the match.

"I think in those situations, you're just grinding out one point at a time and not thinking, 'We've got to get a whole lot more points here to win than they do,'" Gray said. "But my focus was just keep serving deep to try to keep them from feeding their middles, because when they did that, they were really good. So it wasn't about it having to put in the most perfect serve of my life, but just putting it in the right place."

If you watch on television, you'll sometimes see when coaches give the signal to their players where to serve, usually hiding it from the opposing team using a clipboard or tablet. But do players ever decide to go a different direction than what the coach signals? Sometimes, based on what they see.

"You've always got to look at the eyes of the passers," Clark said of her opponents. "Maybe one is looking a little uncertain. Let's target her. And it can be deflating to them when you get on a serving run. Your job as a server is to stress them out."

Ultimately, Ashburn doesn't see serving as being all that pressure-filled; she tends to look at it from the opposite perspective. Maybe that's why she's so good at it.

"You have the ball, you have control of the timing," Ashburn said. "You have control of everything in that moment. All the eyes are on you. It's a cool time."