As Coach Dan Friend reflected on this past 2023 season with the men’s volleyball team, he spoke nothing but highly of his athletes. The first words that came to his mind were gritty and resilient. “After a loss we’re bouncing back and we’re right back at it working hard in the gym,” said Friend.
This work ethic is what put them in a good position at the end of the season. “Most people thought we were probably finishing in the lower half of the conference but we found a way to get wins at the end of the year and put ourselves in fourth,” said Friend.
Part of finding their way was studying and scouting other teams. The Flyers watch film and pick out certain tendencies that give them an advantage during upcoming games. “[This] optimizes our opportunities to slow them down or stop them or create opportunities for us to score,” said Friend.
Although they come to each game with knowledge of the other team, the team focuses on their player dynamics. “We have a set way of playing,” said Friend. “We talk a lot about controlling our side first.” The better they get, though, the more they are able to “impose their will on the other team”, as well, said Friend. This means they would be able to play to their strengths but also play off the opponent’s weaknesses.
However, in such a competitive conference, knowing your opponent is not enough. Work ethic and precision are what makes the difference. Behind the scenes, the guys are constantly battling for spots and, as they do so, they only get better and better. Friend mentioned how “there wasn’t a clear cut winner all the time.”
Because of this continuous competitive nature, there are a lot of changes to the lineup during the season. “[I] switched the line up a lot and it’s been a big growth year just as a collective group…The team has had its ups and downs but I think over the last month we’ve had a pretty steady line up that has leveled out,” said Friend.
Each year brings in new guys, so Friend mentioned how practices are always different. This year, he explained that there were a lot of different tactics they use to prepare for competition, specifically skill based stuff and block training. “Block defense has been big for us, high sequencing, how we’re moving our feet, how we’re tracking stuff, where our hands are present,” said Friend. Since the team was pretty young this season, they just worked on getting more consistent and systematic in terms of offense and defense.
When asked how exactly they practice these things, especially the timing that goes into it, Friend stated that reps is the key. “It’s just repetition and understanding how to use your vision and what steps you’re supposed to be on,” said Friend. He specified that it had to be correct repetition, by getting the same correct motion down over and over again.
Additionally, he emphasized how important communication was alongside that. “They have to know the right feedback to give to each other,” said Friend. “If you just go out and do it and you don’t have the correct feedback or the correct awareness about what you’re trying to accomplish then you’re not gonna get where you need to go.” So, it’s a combination of repetition and useful dialogue between the setter and hitter. Everyone has to be on the same page.
Not only do they have a universal mindset, they also have a solid atmosphere. Friend stated that he’s “been pretty blessed with a lot of good guys that have continued the culture that was created in terms of just family atmosphere. The guys look after each other, how we compete, how we celebrate [and] the energy.” This type of energy takes a lot of work to keep up, but they make sure they never stray from positivity and peace.
Keeping a team culture consistent means having the right leaders. The coach noted again how young this team is compared to his 2021 team and how the dynamic of the team has changed since then. Now being composed of 16 first or second years, Friend liked the dynamics shown between the older and younger players. “The older guys say to the younger guys, ‘hey you gotta work through this.’ and then the younger guys grab a hold of that and understand that this is a process and it’s not gonna be this quick fix next week, it might take some time to get where we wanna go.” Because the underclassmen are always looking up to the upperclassmen, the team successfully continues in its attitude and atmosphere.
Coach Friend spoke proudly of how his athletes performed, saying some of his favorite memories were winning at Lindenwood and Quincy. “[It] put ourselves in a position for fourth [and] taking care of the game last Saturday against [Purdue] Fort Wayne,” said Friend. “They won a game 38-36 with like 8 match points. I think I’m just proud of the guys taking the steps with that in terms of where we started and where we’re headed.”
All in all, Friend is very focused on his team and the culture that they cultivate. Now going into his 20th year as a Flyer’s head coach, he looks forward to another year of challenges with a new mix of players.
Photo Credits: Lewis University