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OU volleyball player Simone Miller, a sophomore outside hitter from Kalamazoo, Michigan, poses for a portrait in the Convocation Center. (FILE)

Volleyball: Ohio's slew of makeshift middle blockers will take on Buffalo and Akron over the weekend

When the coaching staffs from Buffalo and Akron sit down to dissect the Ohio game film, the strategy and personnel at one position will baffle them more than the rest: middle blocker.

Though Ohio’s in-and-out process may perplex opponents, Ohio coach Deane Webb is excited and prepping for an array of imposing middles he can throw at the net this weekend on a road trip featuring the Bulls on Friday at 5 p.m. and the Zips on Saturday at 6 p.m.

Webb, however, can admit Ohio’s middle rotation is not of the norm.

“How many outside hitters have not played middle? That’s starting to be a shorter list (of players) than those that have,” Webb said. “But, right now, we have a group that’s doing well.”

So far, Ohio has used five different middles: redshirt junior Ali Lake, redshirt sophomore Katie Nelson, redshirt freshman Natalie Burchesky, sophomore Simone Miller and freshman Sara Januszewski –– the final two mentioned converted from outside hitter.

Recently, the most intriguing and impressive case has been Miller.

Slated to get more playing time this weekend, Miller hadn’t made her debut at middle until the halfway point of the Bobcats’ season.

But in Ohio’s previous three-set match against Western Michigan, she posted a seven-kill, seven-block and .462 attack percentage night — stunning the Broncos and Webb.

“Her improvement curve is a vertical straight line,” Webb said. “I think she knows a lot more than what people thinks she knows. We’re pretty excited about her lately.”

Obviously there is only so much Miller can learn in a constricted period of time, which is made evident by the sight of a few missing blocking assignments and awkward positioning.

Her teammates understand, though, that the middle position is a process, and is one of the hardest to grasp in Division I college volleyball.

“Simone is being very versatile right now,” Bobcat outside hitter Mallory Salis said. “We run a lot of patterns, and I think she’s struggling with identifying hitters, but every new person is gonna do that. But she jumped in, attacked it and is doing awesome.”

Also jumping into the lineup soon will be Januszewski, who suffered from an extended illness, which is promising for Ohio. Webb noted she is now days — not weeks — away from returning.

Unsurprisingly, Ohio is emphasizing a need to get more swings to the middle, especially because Miller and Nelson together have averaged just under 30 total attacks over the last two matches.

With middle blockers who can double as outside hitters, a central attack will be a unique advantage Webb won’t complain about anytime soon.


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