Personalities blend to create dynamic play at middle hitter
They have very different personalities, but together they make the Colorado Mesa University volleyball team better.
Melissa Hess is a feisty, 6-foot-2 redhead.
“I would describe myself as competitive and outgoing,” Hess said. “I don’t like to take things for granted. I’m a jokester, I guess, kind of a smart-aleck, but all in good fun.”
Abby Ney is a 5-10 cool customer.
“I think of myself as caring person and how I impact others’ lives,” Ney said. “I’m a no-regrets kind of person. I want to live each day like it’s my last. It correlates to volleyball because someday it will be my last day playing volleyball.
“When it’s such an intense moment, I look them in the eye and say ‘You can do it.’ It’s almost as rewarding as doing something by myself when my teammates are successful.”
Hess said Ney is that calming influence on and off the court.
“She’s usually the first person, if you’re down, to say you’re a great player,” Hess said. “She does care. It’s obvious.”
Together, they give coach Dave Fleming the best combination of middle blockers he’s had in his nine seasons at Mesa.
Hess, a junior, is third in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and ninth in the nation in hitting percentage (.358). Ney, a sophomore, is fifth in the RMAC in hitting percentage (.328).
They are second and third on the team in kills behind outside hitter Christian Otzen and one and two in blocks.
“This is clearly our best combination of middles,” Fleming said. “We’re pretty happy with one in the top 10 (in hitting), let alone two.”
The Mavericks have a third middle blocker, freshman Hattie Gianinetti, a Roaring Fork High School graduate. She has played seven sets in six matches this season.
“Hattie would be starting at a lot of other good RMAC schools,” Fleming said. “Other RMAC schools have one good middle, not necessarily two. We think we have three.”
Fleming discovered Hess while recruiting setter Jordyn Moody.
Hess comes from a tall, athletic family. Her father is 6-5 and her mother is 6-0. She has an older sister who played college volleyball, a younger sister playing at Division I Santa Clara University and a 6-6 younger brother who can dunk a basketball.
“I like it here,” Hess said. “It feels like I’ve known these girls for so long, longer than the three years I’ve been here.”
Ney caught his eye at a Mesa camp, but she needed to do some convincing. She attended the camp with a high school teammate as a rare left-handed middle blocker.
“I was talking to them a little bit, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to play in college,” Ney said. “(Fleming) didn’t really like the idea of a lefty middle. That’s where (assistant coach) David (Skaff) comes in. He said, ‘This could be the coolest thing we have ever done.’
“If it wasn’t for David, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He pushed Coach (to give her a chance to play middle).”
Ney started playing middle blocker her junior year of high school and helped Rocky Mountain High School place fifth in state her senior year.
“(The coaches) liked the idea of running slide tempo in front of the setters,” Ney said. “That was my most consistent hit. It gave the defense a different way to look at the middles.”
She is the first left-handed middle blocker in Fleming’s 20-plus years coaching volleyball.
“It’s worked out in the middle,” Fleming said. “We’ve been able to set her and she’s so effective when she’s moving from her right to her left. She has good movement laterally.”
Hess said she is still thrown off going against Ney in practice.
“They are expecting a right-hander, then she gets off to the side of you,” Hess said. “I’m on my second year with her and it’s still hard to pick up.”
Ney’s ability to play middle has changed Fleming’s attack approach. He has traditionally built his attack from the pins (outside hitters) in.
“It guarantees us someone in the front row that can terminate,” Fleming said. “The issue becomes teams are serving us tougher. If we’re not in system, the middles are basically very difficult to set, then you have to set the outside hitter or the right-side hitter. It’s hard to force the ball to the middle attacker.”
When Mesa is in its system, the setter is in position to set the outside hitter, right-side hitter or middle blocker.
“As the season’s progressed, we’ve worked on getting Hess and Abby involved out of system once in a while,” Fleming said. “You’ll see Abby hit from the pin once in awhile off one foot and Hess is good at hitting with one foot behind the setter.
“When Moody goes into serve receive, she has an in-system and an out-of-system set for both of them. We’re trying to find a way to get them the ball.”