Warrior improving by leaps and bounds
By Stephen Tsai
Hawai'i volleyball player Joshua Walker has a 44-inch vertical jump and, off a standing jump, can touch 11 feet 7 1/2.
Most significant was Walker's leap of faith.
During fall training and practices, the Warrior coaches implored Walker to hit wisely — not go for the "over-kill," as it were — and limit unforced errors.
The lessons were justified in the box scores and the trophy case. During the recently completed Outrigger Hotels Invitational, Walker averaged 5.25 kills per set and hit .466.
Walker, who was named the tournament's most outstanding player, yesterday was selected as the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation's player of the week.
"It feels pretty good," said Walker, a junior left-side hitter from Virginia Beach, Va. "Of course, it was a team effort."
Walker always has been one of the Warriors' most skilled players. His spike has been timed at 62 mph.
His one deficiency was his passing, a flaw corrected by playing beach volleyball the past summer and receiving intensive tutorial sessions from Warrior libero Ric Cervantes.
"He's a more complete player," head coach Charlie Wade said. "His passing is more consistent. His serving is more consistent. And I think his hitting is more consistent. The word I use is less 'terminal.' Even though he's scoring at a really high rate, he's recognizing the value of neutral, and he's making less unforced hitting errors."
Walker credits part of that to freshman Jonas Umlauft, a 6-foot-9 opposite attacker from Germany. Umlauft's firepower potential prevents defenses from overloading blocks in front of Walker.
"Jonas takes a lot of the blockers away from me," Walker said. "He's making it easier for me to be more consistent this year."
What's more, Walker no longer is forced to try to convert all of the trouble sets. If a bad pass leads to a set offering limited options, Walker will focus on extending the play rather than hitting into the block.
"I'm trying to concentrate on not making many errors," Walker said. "There's no point in making errors when I'm not getting nearly as many trouble (sets)."
Last year, Walker had a team-high 4.23 kills per set. But he hit only .239 — the goal is at least 30 percent — and he led the Warriors with 120 attack errors, or 1.69 per set.
In the Warriors' three Outrigger matches, Walker made nine attack errors in 116 swings, an average of 0.75 per set.
"Every year he is getting better and better," setter Nejc Zemljak said. "He's a confident player. He knows he has the skills, and he's using them."
Last year, Walker hit mostly from the front left off high sets and from the middle of the back row off pipe sets.
This year, the Warriors reshaped their alignment. Cervantes now plays middle back, and Walker, on three rotation turns, is at the back left. Instead of hitting the "bic" — a quick set to the middle of the back row — Walker now is capable of attacking from the back left. Adding another point of attack creates an additional matchup problem for opposing defenses.
"I feel comfortable hitting it," Walker said. "What it does for our offense is spread everybody out so we're not coming down the middle all of the time. Now we can run the (back) outside."
Meanwhile, the Warriors, who went 2-1 in the Outrigger, moved up four spots, to No. 8, in this week's American Volleyball Coaches Association's top-15 poll.
Despite losing in four sets to UH on the round-robin's final night, Southern California retained its No. 1 ranking.
"We thought we'd move up a little , and we did," Wade said. "The poll stuff is not that big of a deal in the men's game, as opposed to the women's game, because there's no RPI. It's just winning games in the league."
The Warriors open MPSF play with Friday's road match against Stanford.
That will be the first of a four-match road trip.
"We have to win in the league," Wade said. "That's our focus right now: how many games can we win in the league."