Having won nearly 60 percent of their games over the last two years, the Dodge City Community College Conquistadors volleyball team enters its first season under head coach Rachel Williams, who was appointed over the summer.
With 11 freshmen and just three sophomores, the team has gotten to work.
“The thing that we’ve been focusing on in the gym is allowing our players to go as big as they can and make mistakes,” Williams said. “For the younger players, for the freshmen, it’s a new concept for the most part for those guys, and even for the veterans they’re playing it safe, keeping the ball in play, trying to survive. At least for the first two weeks my training is ‘You can’t go big unless you go big.’”
That has included drills such as in serving, where Williams said she ran one in which she told the team to “serve as hard as you can.”
“That was the only directive that I gave ‘em,” Williams said.
The drill started and most of the players put the ball in play, with a few that hit the net. Williams said she then stopped the drill and asked “ Hey, is that as big as we can go? Is that as hard as you can serve?”.
Most said ‘no, not necessarily,’ so Williams restated the instructions as given before, she said, and asked what the instructions were. She then told the team to try again.
“We did another minute of it and it looked a little bit better, serving tougher or harder or whatever you want to say,” Williams said. “I stopped ‘em again after about a minute and I got on the line and I served a ball into the back wall.”
Williams played volleyball for the University of Arizona from 1999-2002, during which time the Wildcats were Co-Champions of the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) Conference.
The team looked at her like she was crazy, Williams said.
“I said ‘What was the instruction?’ and they said ‘To serve as hard as you can’ and I said ‘Are you guys doing that?’ and they looked at me and they said ‘no,’” Williams said.
That was when she told the team “When I say ‘as hard as you can’ I didn’t ask for the ball to be in, I asked for you to serve as hard as you could.”
“My philosophy’s a little bit different,” Williams said. “Go big, jump hard, swing hard, serve the ball into the back wall, and then I will teach you the tweaks and the things that you need in order to keep that pace or that tempo up, all the while keeping the ball in play and being competitive.”
Williams’ previous playing experience at the highest levels of collegiate volleyball has shown her certain things about how athletes work.
“Just talking about athletes in general, most athletes play about 80 percent, and they’re comfortable playing at about 80 percent, but to get to that 100 percent you’ve gotta push past it,” Williams said. “You’ve gotta go farther than you ever thought you could, you’ve gotta try things that you never have before, and you’ve gotta be a little bit wild, to be honest.”
Once an athlete gets to that 95-100 percent range, they start to become capable of seeing what they are capable of, Williams said.
“I think that’s part of what this team needs to learn, is what are we capable of?, What can we do?,” Williams said. “Regardless of who has been in the program in the past and regardless of who the leaders were last year, none of those things matter now. The things that matter are ‘what can we do’, and ‘how can we get there’.”
Statistically, the Conquistadors finished middle of the pack last year within the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference last season in many statistical categories. They finished 12th (out of 20) in the conference in kills, 12th in kills per set, 13th in assists, 17th in digs and 12th in points.
Yet they also ended up 20-14 overall, and at one point won 11 straight sets.
Having played and coached against some good competition, Williams said the difference between between perennial powerhouse teams and teams still working their way up is their fearlessness.
“They operate within that 80 to 20 percent,” Williams said. “They don’t seem to have a lot of fear and the risk factor is higher.”
Teaching the Conquistadors that is a key point of emphasis as the Conqs work toward developing into one of those consistent powerhouses.
“Making mistakes is a natural process, and I think if we can understand that, that’s part of getting that extra 20 percent,” Williams said.
The great volleyball teams out there, such as the Penn State’s of the world, Williams said, learn how to obtain that last 20 percent.
“They learn how to hit the ball as hard as they can and keep it in play,” Williams said. “They learn how to stretch themselves and how to take those risks and how to accept taking those risks. I think there’s a lot of fear of failure in athletes in general, and I think if athletes can get past that fear they can kind of start exploring a whole new realm for themselves.”