First to Five: Thou Shalt Not Lift

By Mila Jasper

Every week, our volleyball expert Mila Jasper takes on the biggest storylines in Big Ten volleyball! Here’s this week’s column:

One moment in volleyball out of the hundreds of points played across the Big Ten this week matters more than Wisconsin beating Minnesota for the first time since 2014, more than Caitlyn Newton sitting out two matches for Purdue, more than Maryland taking Penn State to five sets and more, even, than Northwestern’s challenge system malfunction. 

This one point wasn’t a match point or a set point. It wasn’t a match-altering point. It didn’t even happen in a particularly important match. It wasn’t a huge kill, a perfect dump, or diving save. But if one point really mattered this week, this one was it. 

It happened in Northwestern’s home match against Wisconsin. The Badgers were up two sets to none. The score was 11-6 in favor of the visiting team. 

Michelle Lee went back to the service line for the Wildcats. Unfortunately for Northwestern, Lee’s jump-floater soared over to Tiffany Clark, the Wisconsin libero. As per usual, Clark delivered a perfect 3-point pass to setter Sydney Hilley, giving Wisconsin the opportunity for an in-system, first-ball sideout kill. 

Hilley’s choice was, of course, the 6-foot-8 middle blocker Dana Rettke. Rettke charged in from the left side of the court, tracking the pass with her eyes before taking a quick approach. Hilley ran her on a push, a quick set to the middle that is slightly further away from the setter than a traditional one ball. 

Rettke went up for a tip. She navigated the ball across her body, hurling it down in front of Northwestern setter Kiara McNulty. Big Ten Network’s Mike Monaco, after the ball hit the floor, said, “Rettke just slams that down.”

Take careful note of the word slam. You see, “slamming” is very much illegal in volleyball. Tipping, tapping, even fisting the ball over the net are the options volleyball players have if they aren’t going to take a full swing at the ball. But slamming? As in, slam-dunking? Absolutely not. 

In fact, the entire point of volleyball is that contact with the ball must be instantaneous. Catching, throwing, lifting and otherwise touching the ball for longer than a split second is antithetical to sport itself – and referees must take a more aggressive approach to calling the infraction. 

Yet as the popularity of tipping as an offensive option has risen, it seems that calling a fault for the “Caught or Thrown Ball” as the NCAA rule book names the infraction, is becoming less common. 

Tips are effective because they allow hitters to confuse defenses. Particularly after a team has been pounding away with deep, heavy swings, switching to clever tipping is a good strategy. The defense is sitting back on its heels, platforms up, waiting for a deep corner drill to hit them. Then a tip comes; the defender has to recognize it, change the direction of their momentum and move. Given the speed of the game, that’s a lot to hope for. 

The reason catching cheap tip shots is hard is because the fault is a judgment call the first referee has to make. Unlike net touches or block touches, what qualifies as a “prolonged contact” depends on the referee. And, referees have to make sure that what is called a lift on one side is called equally on the other. 

But this shouldn’t be such a big ask: the more common ball handling error – the double contact – is policed the same way. Double contacts are often made obvious because the ball tends to spin or slip in the setter’s hands, but lifts, as they are commonly known, have clear markers, too. 

Take a look at the Rettke throw. You can see that she first reaches up for the ball. Then, she curls her hand over the top of the ball. Her shoulders were facing the opposite side of the court from where she meant to place the ball. The only way she could move the ball all the way across her body, fast and down, was by absorbing the momentum of the ball and redirecting it. 

This she did, as opposed to presenting a forceful plane with her fingers off which the ball could rebound. The correct motion would have looked more like a jab than what Rettke performed. 

Other dead giveaways indicating lifts include when a player starts her contact with her hand facing upwards and magically ends contact with her hand facing downwards. This is textbook “prolonged contact.”

The real miracle here, the whole point of this column, is that the referee actually called the fault. She did so immediately, with no hesitation. She saw it and said: not today. Thou shalt not lift. Thou shalt not carry. Thou shalt not catch, throw, or otherwise cheat.

The referee’s confidence even in the face of indignant Wisconsin players is incredibly important for the health of the game. Good tips are awesome, but in order to stop the game from turning into some sort of perverse version of handball, more referees have to draw a line on how much prolonged contact they will let players get away with. 

Dana Rettke, you are a 6-foot-8 college junior who played ball with the national team. You do not need leeway on the tip call. Play volleyball.

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