Alicia Dittrich, a Central Arkansas University junior, might be 6 feet tall…if she wears thick socks.
Amanda Gil, recently graduated from the University of Washington, stands at a legitimate 6-foot-6.
Last November, Dittrich and Gil squared off in an NCAA tournament match in Seattle. As they faced each other on opposite sides of the net, one of those two athletes was staring at what could be the future of college volleyball: the short middle blocker.
“The big kid in the middle is now a rare commodity,” said University of Texas-San Antonio assistant coach Pat Stangle.
“We struggle all the time in trying to find middles that have enough size,” agreed Seattle University head coach James Finley.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when middle blockers ruled the court. They were the tallest players in the gym and seemed to get bigger every year. The best middles carried the load on both offense and defense. Theirs was a glamour position.
But in 2013, that’s no longer true.
“I think it is tough to find a good middle these days,” said Minnesota head coach Hugh McCutcheon. “No question.”
“All the middles have moved outside,” said Southern California head coach Mick Haley. “Six-foot-five players are playing at the pins.”
At the London Olympics, the two tallest Americans played opposite: 6'7" Tayyiba Haneef-Park and 6'4" Destinee Hooker. Megan Hodge, the 6'3" outside, was the same height as middle Foluke Akinradewo, and taller than 6'2" middles Christa Harmotto and Danielle Scott-Arruda.
Colleges have noticed. We don’t have a database of player heights by position, but in the four years spanning 2000 to 2003, fully one-third (16 out of 48) of AVCA First Team All-Americans were middle blockers. Today it’s a different story. Although All-American rosters have since been expanded from 12 players to 14, only two middles—Florida’s Chloe Mann and Stanford’s Carly Wopat—made 2012’s First Team, and just one—Rachael Adams of Texas—was on the 2011 AVCA top tier (though a paperwork snafu that season disqualified Wopat and other Stanford players from consideration).
Mann, Wopat, and Adams are all 6'2". Every single outside and opposite on the 2012 AVCA First Team is as tall, or taller, than that trio. Back in 2000-03, middles were always at the top of the All-American height chart. But now, as Haley observed, the really tall players are on the pins.
So, what’s going on?
A decade or two ago, club and high school coaches reflexively stuck the tallest kid in the middle. When Dittrich began playing as an eighth grader in Houston, she wasn’t given much choice. “I was the tallest on my team,” she said
“In my neck of the woods,” said her college coach, Central Arkansas’ David McFatrich, “you’re put into a position based on your height way too early.”
The problem, say many college coaches, is that young middles too often learn just a small part of the game.
“If you play middle in club, you play your three rotations and you’re done,” said McCutcheon. “You don’t get to learn about defense. You don’t get to learn about the whole game as much.”
“Top players want to play six rotations,” said Haley. “They want to be physical. They want to fly and hit that ball and run it down.”
Not that the middle position isn’t physical. But, in the modern game, middles labor hard for little reward, especially on offense. It usually takes a pretty good pass to convince a setter to look inside. But that doesn’t mean middles get to take it easy.
“At middle,” said McFatrich, “you’re jumping all the time. You’re moving all the time. You’re taxed.”
“What kids have realized is, hey, I’ve gotta work really, really hard in the middle,” said Stangle. “And the payoff’s not that great. I can work hard for ten balls in a row and never touch it. On the outside, you don’t have to work as hard. You get a lot more balls. You get to affect the game a lot more.”
“The game is primarily won and lost at the pins,” said McCutcheon. “To that end, talented athletes want to get out where they can get set more often.”
As a result, coaches find themselves in the living rooms of more and more tall recruits who insist that, in college, they will only play outside or opposite.
“Coaches are always looking for middles,” said John Tawa, the recruiting guru who operates prepvolleyball.com. “Every year, even as late as two days before the season starts, I have colleges calling me saying, ‘We’re still looking for middles!’ Especially in the lower levels, where there’s still scholarship money available – DII, NAIA, Junior College.”
So, maybe it’s fair to ask: who’d want to be a middle?
“It’s work, but it’s a lot of fun, too,” said Dittrich, offering a player’s perspective. “You’re involved in every play. The sets usually go to you when it’s a perfect pass. I always say it’s hard to be an outside, because they have to hit sets that start with bad passes.”
McCutcheon weighed in on the dilemma from the coaching perspective. “I think you want to develop generalized specialists,” he said. “That’s part of my philosophy. If we’re teaching passing, we should teach everyone in the gym how to pass. If we’re teaching setting, we should all know how to set. If you created middles that had a little more variety in their skill set, if they could do a little bit more, I think you’d find, maybe, more middle blockers would want to stay in there.”
Central Arkansas’ McFatrich offered up another good observation. “You have to have a different type of mentality as a player to want to play middle,” he said. “A good coach is going to treat that position, and the players that play in that position, a little bit differently.” He mentioned that coaches should make players realize how special it is to be a middle.
Part of the mentality that middles need is a new emphasis on quickness. Shorter middles with whip arms and good hops can be a devastating weapon when an offense goes into motion with slides and combinations.
“I’m always telling my setter: faster, faster, faster,” said Dittrich. “Because otherwise, I have a huge block I have to find my way around. Instead, I try to beat them to the point of attack.” Despite her modest height, at least by Division I volleyball standards, she hit .344 last season, good for the 24th best DI hitting percentage in the nation.
“When you start looking at the bottom third of DI or at DII,” said Finley, “a lot of those middles are kids that have speed. They’re really quick and really hit the ball well. That’s the kind of middle that’s gonna thrive in those schools.”
“The middle is a really important, but skilled and nuanced, position,” said McCutcheon. He went on to say that the blocking responsibilities were the most critical part of the position.
Ah, yes, blocking. Let’s not forget, the full name for middles at most schools is “middle blocker.”
But, Dittrich stated, height isn’t everything when it comes to blocking. “A lot of tall girls aren’t necessarily good blockers,” said Dittrich. “They’ll just put their hands up as high as they can. That’s not necessarily the best block. The best block is gonna be penetrating across the net.”
In that playoff match in Seattle, Dittrich’s opponent was a good blocker – Amanda Gil led the nation in blocks per set. Gil tallied nine block assists in Washington’s 3-0 victory against Central Arkansas. But both Gil and Dittrich recorded just one kill each, despite nearly seven inches difference in their heights.
McFatrich has no problem with the trend toward shorter middles. “I wouldn’t mind at all having a 6-foot middle and a couple pin players that are 6'4", 6'5". That would be great for me.”
6'8" Ashley Harris, Arizona
6'7" *Jennifer Hamson, BYU
6'6" Liz McMahon, Illinois
6'5" Morgan Broekhuis, Nebraska
6'5" Laura Schaudt, Oregon St
6'5" Elise Walch, Florida St
6'4" BreElle Bailey, Arizona St
6'4" Ellen Chapman, Wisconsin
6'4" Annie Drews, Purdue
6'4" Karsta Lowe, UCLA
6'4" Ebony Nwanebu, USC
6'4" Ariel Scott, Penn St
6'3" Ciara Capezio, Iowa St
6'3" Haley Eckerman, Texas
6'3" Kelsey Fien, Nebraska
6'3" Adrienne Gehan, California
6'3" Brittany Howard, Stanford
6'3" Amber Rolfzen, Nebraska
6'3" Erin Sekinger, Ohio St
6'3" Nikki Taylor, Hawai’i
6'3" Bailey Webster, Texas
*Redshirting the 2013 season
5'7" Deme Morales, Wisconsin
5'8" Cassie Strickland, Washington
5'9" Maya McClendon, Louisville
5'10" Jovana Bjelica, North Carolina
5'10" Tiana Dockery, Kansas
5'10" Rachel Engle, Western Kentucky
5'10" Emily Juhl, Louisville
5'10" Leah McNary, Creighton
5'10" Paige Wessel, Western Kentucky
5'11" Emily Alexis, Colorado
5'11" Jessica Bird, Creighton
5'11" Jane Croson, Arizona
5'11" Jaicee Harris, Washington St
5'11" Stephanie Holthus, Northwestern
5'11" Alex Lovell, Iowa
5'11" Emani Sims, Miami (FL)
5'11" Dominique Thompson, Wisconsin
6'0" Kalei Adolpho, Hawai’i
6'0" Bailey Bateman, Utah
6'0" Randi Ewing, Louisville
6'0" Taylor Johnson, Kansas St
6'1" Faye Adelaja, Purdue
6'1" Hali Amaro, Arizona
6'1" Khat Bell, Texas
6'1" Alessandra Dietz, Iowa
6'1" Chloe Ferrari, San Diego
6'1" Ver’Leea Hardaway, Washington St
6'1" Katie Hoekman, San Diego
6'1" KiKi Jones, Purdue
6'1" Ashley Mariani, Tennessee
6'1" Arica Nassar, Oregon St
6'1" Lianna Sybeldon, Washington
6'1" Natalie Vondrak, Iowa St
6'2" Simone Antwi, Florida
6'2" Caroline Jarmoc, Kansas
6'2" Noelle Langenkamp, Western Kentucky
6'2" Olivia Magill, Arizona
6'2" Chloe Mann, Florida
6'2" Sallie McLaurin, Oklahoma
6'2" Victoria McPherson, North Carolina
6'2" Paige Neuenfeldt, North Carolina
6'2" Savannah Paffen, Northwestern
6'2" Kaitlynn Pelger, Kansas St
6'2" Jamie Straube, Iowa St
6'2" Hannah Tapp, Minnesota
6'2" Carly Wopat, Stanford
6'8" Merete Lutz, Stanford
6'6" Katie Slay, Penn St
6'5" Sarah Burrington, Florida St
6'5" Alexis Olgard, USC
6'5" Lara Vukasovic, California
6'4" Megan Anders, Santa Clara
6'4" Autumn Christenson, Michigan St
6'4" Jennifer Cross, Michigan
6'4" Andrea Kacsits, Ohio St
6'4" Maddie Mayers, Illinois
6'4" Lauren Smith, Creighton
6'4" Melanie Wade, Washington
6'3" Inky Ajanaku, Stanford
6'3" Mariana Aquino, UCLA
6'3" Tori Dixon, Minnesota
6'3" Shealyn Kolosky, Tennessee
6'3" Alexis Mathews, Michigan St
6'3" Ashley Neff, Florida
6'3" Zoë Nightingale, UCLA
Originally published in November 2013