Coaches, players preach mental toughness during 5-set volleyball matches

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Friday, November 16, 2018 | 9:24 PM


A fifth game in a volleyball match is one of the most tense, exciting experiences in sports.

Every serve, hit and point is magnified five-fold. And momentum, already important in a match, is amplified.

By the end of a fifth game, the athletes usually are exhausted. One team is ecstatic. The other is a bit downtrodden.

Baldwin coach Chris Kelly was a highly successful tactician in Game 5s this season.

Baldwin’s girls volleyball team, which finished as the WPIAL Class AAAA runner-up, competed in five matches that went to a fifth set — against Oakland Catholic, Bethel Park and Canon-McMillan in section action, and Shaler and Pine-Richland in the WPIAL playoffs.

“We won them all,” Kelly said. “The fifth set of a volleyball match is always a little unnerving. Since it’s only played to 15 points, I think a quick start is important. Getting some momentum early can sometimes make all the difference. Confidence and mindset play a big part in a fifth set. Having played in them before with success is extremely helpful. Having some grit and being able to perform under pressure is just as important as skill in a fifth set.

“Sometimes, I will adjust my lineup for a fifth set to get some different matchups against the opposing team’s lineup. I may want my first server to be a player who’s had an exceptional night behind the line for example.”

The driving force to Baldwin’s 5-0 record in fifth games was junior middle blocker Allison Murray, a first-team all-section and All-WPIAL selection in 2018.

“We had lots of Game 5 situations over the season,” Murray said. “To win Game 5, the team needs to have the endurance to push and finish. Coach Kelly always says our mind will quit way before our body will. Also, having and maintaining a positive mindset is another major factor that plays into winning the fifth set. This goes along with grit. Having grit is not quitting and doing everything to persevere and be the ones to come out on top. Baldwin definitely has a lot of it.

“Communication and playing with the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens you have the team behind you to support and encourage you also has a big role on how the fifth game ends. With Game 5 comes pressure, there are 15 points and you can’t focus on the outcome. The team needs to focus on earning one point at a time.”

On the other end of the spectrum, WPIAL Class AAA runner-up Thomas Jefferson did not participate in a single Game 5 this season.

The closest the Jaguars came to any do-or-die fifth-game scenarios were a pair of 3-1 section victories against Elizabeth Forward and another against Laurel Highlands.

But veteran coach Ron Kelly is none-the-less familiar with the atmosphere of crucial fifth games.

“Volleyball is a game of momentum. You just gotta get that momentum,” Kelly said. “You have a smaller window in a Game 5; you have to make sure you jump out early and try to get the lead. And you can’t make mistakes. One mistake or one missed call could change everything. If there are mistakes, I’d call timeout earlier (than usual).”

Brentwood played in two Game 5s this season, both against section rival Fort Cherry. Brentwood won the first match; the Rangers won the second.

Both were dramatic, gripping nerve-rackers.

“I think Game 5s are tense, exciting and nerve-racking, and the teams are definitely exhausted by Game 5s,” coach Kayla Hubsch said. “I think it is exciting to get to a Game 5 because usually the match is back and forth, which is the most exciting volleyball.”

Sparked by seniors Natalie Murrio and Anna Betz, Brentwood edged Fort Cherry, 3-2, in mid-September by winning the fifth game 16-14.

“That was the most exciting and tense match I have ever been a part of as a coach at Brentwood, and even a player,” Hubsch said. “Natalie played an incredible match. She was amazing offensively and defensively. Anna also did a great job for us.”

The Spartans won the first two games, 25-23, 29-27. The visitors took the next two, 25-21, 25-22.

Game 5 went into overtime, as Brentwood rallied from deficits of 4-0, 5-2, 10-7 and 12-10 to eke out the victory.

“Fort Cherry was a huge win for us,” said Murrio, a MH/DS and first-team all-section selection. “We went into the game knowing it was going to be a tough one, and knew everyone needed to be mentally and physically prepared. We never gave up even if we were down; we knew we had to keep the energy high on our part.

“I feel that was my best game in my volleyball career. I was moved to middle hitter/middle back this year; it (was) a big change but overall a smooth transition.”

Betz finished with 19 kills and two blocks against the Rangers. Murrio had 18 digs and 13 kills.

“To win a Game 5, your whole team needs to be ‘cool, calm and collected,’ as coach Hubsch would say,” Murrio said. “As a player, you have to play to win and not like you are afraid to lose. Your team has to be conditioned and have a lot of endurance to win.”

There were five ties in the fifth game against Fort Cherry, at 6-6, 10-10, 12-12, 13-13 and 14-14.

At the end, the Spartans reeled off three straight points as Betz belted over the game-winner on a blast at the net.

“My coaching mindset is to go into the game relaxed,” Hubsch said. “Tensions and emotions are already high for the girls going into a Game 5 because the set only goes to 15 points, so errors need to be minimal.

“I try to keep my teams calm and collected, but also excited. I always tell them you would rather play in exciting volleyball games like this than completely shut a team down or be completely shut down.”

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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