After losing in five sets at Wright State on October 8, the defeat was the last thing on the mind of Valparaiso coach Carin Avery.
She had a team that was decimated by injuries throughout the first month-plus of the season. Suddenly, Valpo faced its biggest obstacle yet. The Crusaders, who were already playing with just one healthy setter, sophomore Lizzie Zaleski, lost her that night. She sustained a shoulder injury on one of the match’s final points. It appeared she would be sidelined for a good period of time.
“This year had already been crazy for us,” Avery said. “Never in my career had our team had that many injuries at once. They just kept piling up, and then just when you think it can’t get any worse, that’s when both setters go down with injuries.”
Avery and her coaching staff had been mixing and matching lineups all season, piecing together rotations for matches while sometimes struggling to even come up with enough healthy bodies to field a full team. But what team prepares for having no setters?
On the four-hour bus ride back to campus, Avery went through every possible lineup she could think of, but everything kept pointing back to one unorthodox, but potentially effective, solution: playing out of system and using libero Morganne Longoria as the primary setter.
“You can’t teach someone to set in two days to run an offense, but we’ve worked tirelessly on out-of-system play,” Avery said. “It was just a matter of where to put players to make it the easiest outcome.
“Two days later, before practice, my staff and I sat down again to weigh our options. We came up with our best lineup and we had two days to work on it.”
Longoria was all for it.
“When Coach Avery came to us and told us how we were going to play, we were all shocked, but at the same time excited,” said Longoria a 5-foot-2 product of Burlington, Wisconsin. “I think it’s everybody’s dream to be a setter, and so when she said that I was going to be our primary setter, I was thrilled because it was something I have never done before.”
“The only hesitation I had going in was about my setting hands, because I have never set, but once we started getting into the groove with this system, I gained a lot of confidence in my hands.”
The next opponent was Oakland, which was leading the Horizon League at the time.
“We have always been a staff that works a tremendous amount on out-of-system play, so that helped us prepare,” Avery said. “Having a senior libero with the experience of Morganne, who has played in almost every match of her career, helps as well. We also have good outside hitters and defensive specialists who can handle the ball very well. We have always been a team with good ball control and defense and that helps running this system.”
Longoria, who played for the Wisconsin Juniors and Milwaukee Sting clubs prior to arriving at Valpo, made the Horizon League All-Freshman Team in 2013. As a sophomore, she led the Crusaders with 506 digs (4.44/set), ranking fifth in the Horizon. Last year, she led Valpo with 494 total digs, averaging 4.62 digs/set, fifth in the Horizon. She also finished third on the team with 93 assists and tied for third with 26 service aces.
But being a libero/setter was something totally new. She would continue to play as a primary passer in serve receive and cover hitters as well.
“We ran a lot of situational plays in practice those two days, like what would happen if I took the first ball and what height the second balls needed to be at,” Longoria said. “It was about getting everybody comfortable with what we were doing, so that when we played, it wasn’t just chaos.
“I just had to keep reminding myself to take the second ball if I didn’t get the first touch, but that was pretty easy since that’s always been my first instinct as a libero when the setter takes the first ball. I also realized with the extra movement, my conditioning would be key, since I would be involved in more aspects of every single play.”
It worked at Oakland. Valpo swept the Golden Grizzlies and hit .237 as a team as Longoria had assists on 28 of Valpo’s 41 kills and had a team-high 14 digs.
“The match against Oakland was something I’ll never forget,” Longoria said. “All of us were having so much fun with it and we were playing amazing volleyball. Even though plays may not have been pretty, we made it work and proved that even without a setter, we still were a threat. Our hitters did an amazing job putting the ball down, especially when we needed it.”
The win over Oakland was as emotional a victory for the Crusader program as any in quite some time. But then a new challenge arose, as teams would be able to scout and prepare for the unusual strategy. Yet since making the change, the Crusaders are 5-3.
“We are such a good out-of-system team and always have been,” Longoria said. “Our ball control has really helped us. If we didn’t have multiple people who could put up good second balls, then this whole system would not work. Everybody has stepped up their game and has really helped us out in different ways.
“We’ve also done things with the system like randomly thrown in a setter to play like normal, and it keeps our opponents off balance. It takes an amazing team to be able to go from having everything out of system to the next point passing in tempo and having a setter, and I wouldn’t want to be playing like this with any other group of girls.”
Longoria has averaged 5.66 assists and 5.38 digs per set over the eight matches and has twice been named Horizon League Defensive Player of the Week. She has recorded 25 or more assists four times and in a five-set win Oct. 21 over Wright State, she had 36 digs, breaking her previous career high of 30.
“I think with all of our injuries, the out-of-system play came at a crucial time for us,” Avery said. “It really gave us a renewed spirit –- we came at it with an attitude of let’s do this and let’s have fun with this, and that’s the attitude we’ve embraced since then. It’s been really fun as a coach, because it’s a whole new way to coach and think about the game. The team has been a blast to work with as well –- they’ve been so open to playing this different style and working on unique things.”
Valparaiso has won 20 matches a year every season since 2002. That streak is in jeopardy as Valpo faces the unfamiliar position of having to fight to earn a spot in the Horizon League Championship field.
“I’m sure it’s hard to believe, given how challenging a year it’s been, but this has probably been the most fun I’ve had coaching throughout my career,” Avery said. “We have always had a very close group of girls, but this year’s team has really been outstanding through all the trials and tribulations. What we’ve done this season and what we’re doing right now would never work if everybody didn’t embrace it whole-heartedly. All of our players have the sense that we can still do great things this year despite our situation.”