Don Patterson | AOC senior content manager
Do you find yourself saying “How’d she do that?’ when you watch Stanford libero Morgan Hentz make plays? Me too.
I enjoyed the latest edition of The Mo Show last Saturday night when she flew every which way imaginable to pop up a match-leading 19 digs in the Cardinal’s three-set sweep of the Texas Longhorns in the regional final. She passed well too, and that combination of deadly defense and steely serve-receive is unquestionably a big part of why Stanford is back at the final four in Kansas City this week to defend its 2016 NCAA title.
Jim Stone, former head coach at Ohio State and longtime coach of U.S. girls’ youth national team, sums up her contributions succinctly: “With Hentz on the court, balls that normally hit the floor won’t. She’s a game-changer.”
So how does she do it? I got some insight a year ago when I talked to her on the phone a few days after the Cardinal won last year’s championship in Columbus, Ohio. She was home in Lakeside Park, Kentucky, for the holiday break. No doubt, it was a well-deserved vacation. In the final three matches of the 2016 season, Hentz worked hard, totaling 84 digs: 30 in a 5-set victory over Wisconsin in the regional final, 27 in a 4-set semifinal victory over Minnesota and 27 more in a 4-set championship match win over Texas.
Early in our conversation, I mentioned one specific play from the final that I’d particularly enjoyed. She’d sprinted from the back court and laid out a few feet from the net to pancake a ball tipped by Texas terminator Ebony Nwanebu.
“Great dig,” I said. “Looks like you read the tip early.”
“Nwanebu is a great hitter,” she responded. “She brings a lot of power to her swings and she’s also really smart and knows when to tip at the right time. Film study helps me a lot on plays like that. When the other team is out of system, they may swing differently than when they’re in system. On that play, I looked at the pass and saw it was out of system. I knew the setter couldn’t get as great a set as if the pass was in system. And the ball was tight to the net, so I saw that [Nwanebu] had an open hand and realized that she was tipping. Before I got to college, I didn’t realize this – but touches on the ball before the hitter gets to it can affect how the hitter swings.”
Another thing she learned in college was how to read the server.
“Before coming to Stanford, I never knew reading on serve-receive was a thing, but [former Stanford coach] John [Dunning] taught me,” she said. “I look at the server first to see where their body is facing. There are servers who will typically serve right on the line of their approach, and there are players who have a no-look serve – they may be facing one way, coming in cross court, then they’ll wrist away down the line. When we scout, we’ll pick up on those things. Club and high school players don’t scout as much, but if you watch a server, you can talk to your teammates and say, ‘Hey, this girl has a no-look serve. Let’s be ready for it.’ You just need to see where their line of approach is taking them and where their arm is taking them.”
Bringing big energy to the gym is another great asset for a libero. That’s never been a problem for Hentz.
“My mom said I was like a monkey when I was a kid, climbing all over the house,” she said. “We had a trampoline in our backyard. I’d always want to try new tricks on our trampoline. When I watched the movie ‘Annie’ and saw them doing flips, I said, ‘OK, I’m going to go try a flip on the trampoline.’ My mom almost had a heart attack when she saw me do it for the first time.”
Midway through this season, I visited a Stanford practice at Maples Pavilion. When the workout was done, Hentz asked Cardinal coach Kevin Hambly to rip some balls at her so she could practice digging. She wanted to work specifically on handling hits to her left, which she didn’t feel as comfortable with as hits to her right. Here's what it looked like:
Volunteering for more work isn’t uncommon for Hentz. In the middle of last season, the Cardinal had significant injury issues at the outside hitter position. Hentz, who is 5-9 and was an outside hitter in high school and club, raised her hand and lobbied to add hitting to her duties. Blocking would have been a challenge, yes, but Stanford coaches considered it. Longtime assistant Denise Corlett had watched her play multiple times during the recruiting process and loved seeing her slice up defenses hitting everything: slides, front twos, roll shots, tips. In the final analysis, though, the coaches decided against it. Dunning’s reasoning went like this: “If she got hurt playing left-side, everybody would have killed me because she’s that good of a libero.”
Don Patterson is the editor of VolleyballUSA and DiG magazines and the senior content director for Art of Coaching. Previously, he was a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and an editor at CBS Sports.