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Did Wisconsin’s Back Row Attack Help Win The National Championship?

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Just a few weeks ago, the Wisconsin Badgers won the 2021 NCAA Division 1 national championship by winning two five-set matches in the national semifinals and national championship match.

At Gold Medal Squared, we like to say “there are no little things.” Because the margins are so thin in the sport of volleyball, paying attention to detail is a big part of our job as coaches.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the scores from Wisconsin’s two matches from the NCAA’s final-four tournament:

Set 1Set 2Set 3Set 4Set 5Total Points Scored
National Championship MatchSet 1Set 2Set 3Set 4Set 5Total Points Scored
Set 1Set 2Set 3Set 4Set 5Total Points Scored

In the two matches combined, Wisconsin won 219 of the 436 total rallies played, equating to a 50.2% rallies won percentage. In such a tightly contested tournament, that tiny .2% ultimately ended up being the difference in Wisconsin’s championship run.

There are all sorts of ways that .2% could be broken down, but one area in which the Badgers significantly outplayed the other three teams was from the back row attack line.

In every single metric used to calculate the impact of a team’s back row attacking, Wisconsin noticeably outperformed the competition. Most notably, Wisconsin’s .325 hitting percentage and 40% kill percentage from the back row were both higher than those same statistics while attacking from the front row.

To further breakdown how Wisconsin performed from the back row, this chart shows when and where the Badgers were able to successfully utilize its back row attackers:

Match PhaseIn PlayKillsErrorsTotal
Hitting %Kill %
First Ball, In System612119.57963.2%
First Ball, Out Of System5106.16716.7%
Transition, In System6309.33333.3%
Transition, Out Of System4026-.3330.0%

In the video below, we see what makes Wisconsin’s back-row attack so lethal, especially during the “in system” phase. With three front-row threats to worry about, the perfect pass puts immediate pressure on the opposing blockers.

1. The outside hitter’s go attack

2. The setter dump

3. The middle attacker’s slide.

The front-row attackers mentioned are drawing attention from one opposing blocker. Wisconsin’s fourth offensive option — #15’s back row attack — further complicates the task for the blockers. While the opposing middle and right front blockers are eventually able to make recovery block moves towards the play, you can see that #15 has plenty of room to operate.

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