'Cauldron' brews UH volleyball lineup
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
Hawai'i's Alfee Reft is one of college volleyball's best liberos. Last year, he was named Volleyball Magazine's Defensive Player of the Year. He has been the Warriors' most accurate passer this year.
But asked if Reft would start in tonight's match against UC Irvine, UH coach Mike Wilton smiled and said, "We'll see. I have to look at the cauldron."
This season, the Warriors are run as a meritocracy, with depth charts determined by the "cauldron" — a system in which a player is graded in practices and matches. Wilton said points are awarded for a player's performances in drills and the number of times his team wins in scrimmages. The points are based on a 12-day period. The points are put into the metaphorical cauldron, with the highest scorers earning berths in the starting lineup.
"It's completely fair," floor captain Matt Carere said. "There's a 12-day window, and you can compete every day to try and get points. If you have the most points in the previous 12 days (of practices and matches), you get to play. That's the way it should be."
Reft also endorsed the system, saying, "I love it. It's wonderful. It creates a competitive spirit in practice. In sport, you should never relax. It doesn't matter what your status is. You have to push yourself to get better. The cauldron makes people compete and get better."
Dean Smith, North Carolina's famed basketball coach, created the concept. It was picked up by Anson Dorrance, who coached the Tar Heels' women's soccer team to 18 national championships. Carl McGown, who won two men's volleyball championships at Brigham Young, learned of the theory after reading Dorrance's book, "Training Soccer Champions." In it, he calls the system "competitive cauldron."
As a consultant to Wilton last fall, McGown introduced the system to the Warriors.
"When I coached (at BYU), I kept track of what guys were doing in practice," McGown recalled. "I collected those numbers from practice to practice, but did not do any systematic thing with them. After I read the book, I decided to use those numbers. When guys know they're being graded and you're going to write it down and post it, it changes the nature of practice. It makes the practice more competitive."
After that, McGown expanded the system to include a player's winning percentage. At BYU, McGown said, he had two setters — highly acclaimed Chris Pitzak and Hector Lebron.
"Hector wasn't tall, he weighed 230 pounds, and he couldn't serve or do stuff," McGown said. "But whenever Hector played, his team would win. Then he would go on Pitzak's team, and that team would win. Everywhere he went, he won. If you looked at both of them, you would think Pitzak was the better setter. If you didn't record their performances, you wouldn't see that Hector is a winner. I can give you more quotes about how human judgment is limited."
Lebron, who led the Cougars to two national championships, was named the NCAA's Player of the Year in 2001.
"Volleyball practice lends itself perfectly to the competitive cauldron," McGown said. "You're always keeping score. Every serve results in a point somewhere. You get thousands of data points in a course of a few weeks. And you can determine if a player is a winner by randomly assigning people to different groups."
That happened to UH's Eric Kalima, who ascended the depth chart at outside hitter because of his play in practice. Kalima, a converted libero, had not played outside hitter regularly since middle school.
At the end of his three-month term as UH consultant in December, McGown asked the players if they wanted to retain the cauldron.
"Everyone said, 'We want it, as long as the coach is able to make some judgments outside of the cauldron,' " McGown said. "That's fair. We don't want to be completely and totally bound by this. It should provide direction for (Wilton)."
Wilton said the cauldron is "not absolute," providing some flexibility. For instance, John Matt Bender, who was the starting opposite hitter before suffering torn ligaments in his left ankle three weeks ago, will be credited with pre-injury points.
Still, Wilton said, the rolling 12-day window for evaluations is "another way of saying, 'What have you done for us lately?' "
Wilton posts the results periodically. He also e-mails updates to each player.
"It puts everyone on that level playing field," setter Brian Beckwith said. "It doesn't matter how many years you've been here or how many games you've started. The cauldron affects everyone. That's why it's so great. It makes it equal."
Middle blocker Dio Dante said: "If you're sick, you want to come to practice because you don't want to fall behind. It's all fair. It all evens out. Overall, it makes us compete really hard in practice. It makes practice fun. I love the cauldron. You're competing against someone every day who can take your spot. If you practice really well, chances are you're going to start. The point system is a good system."
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