A game-changing phenomenon is afoot in NCAA volleyball
Maybe it will happen this week at the final four in Kansas City. Or maybe it won't. It is so spontaneous, so random, that you never know when or where it's going to happen.
It could be on a crucial point in the fifth set. It could happen following a net cord or a tip or an errant pass. But when a volleyball player -- using a mix of instinct and desperation -- throws her foot out to keep a point alive, it electrifies everyone who witnesses it. In person or on the internet.
Kick, set, spike ... viral video.
"If you can't get your hand or arm under it ..." you've always got your foot, said Wisconsin's Kelli Bates, who used hers to amass three kick saves this season to go along with 295 kills and 298 digs.
"It's cool whenever I get it," said Bates, whose kick saves came against Southern Mississippi, Nebraska and Michigan State. "I used to play soccer and I have pretty good hand-eye coordination. I throw my foot out there and a lot of times it just goes up."
A kick save, for the uninitiated, is -- well -- just what it sounds like. With the ball out of reach and nearing the floor, a player throws out a foot and manages to kick it to a teammate (or even over the net) to keep the play alive.
And before you ask, yes, it's all aboveboard.
"Yep, the commentator wondered if it was legal," said UNC Asheville's Ansley Rooks, who recorded her one and only kick save this season against Florida State.
The official rules of NCAA volleyball state that the ball can touch any part of the body when hitting, as long as it does not come to rest there. Since a rules change in 1999, that includes the foot.
"It counts as a dig, which is absolutely hilarious," said North Carolina's Taylor Fricano, whose one and only collegiate kick save came against LSU this season.
Are we seeing more kick saves than before? Hard to say. It's not an official statistic, but in the age of social media, any spectacular or unexpected feat now has the capability of going viral.
Pancakes, which leave a player flat on the floor in an attempt to propel a ball upward, are last-ditch efforts; kick saves are even more desperate. That makes them even more stunning when they succeed.
Look, Mom, no hands!
Fricano even had enough volleyball IQ to scream, "Up" at just the right moment. "You could actually see people relax because they thought the point was over. Until you get it up or start yelling that it's up, it's so fast and there's this feeling that there's no way. And there usually is no way."
The more spectacular they are, the better odds that an opposing coach will reach for the challenge card arguing, "That ball had to have touched the floor."
"It's a 'by-all-means-necessary' type of element that kicks in with instinct," said Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield, pardoning the pun.
While a point punctuated by a Kathryn Plummer kill or a Rhamat Alhassan block sends a more daunting message, the unexpected kick save is often a momentum-lifter.
"It's one of those hype plays you don't really see coming, and when you get the point -- oh, my gosh!" exclaimed George Washington's Alexis Lete, who followed her kick save against Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 tournament with a block to win the point. "I'm pretty sure they called a timeout after that point. They were frazzled. Everybody in the huddle was like, 'Oh my gosh! You finally got it!' "
Wait a minute, Lete thought. Finally?
That's when her teammates told her that she's done it repeatedly in practice without ever realizing it. That's how reflexive it is.
Lete posted the school's video of it to her social media account, only to be bombarded by an enthusiastic response.
"People told me they watched it over and over again," Lete said. "I was Wonder Woman for Halloween, and a lot of people commented that 'Wonder Woman does it all.' "
Kansas' Kelsie Payne credits her kick save against Texas this season to being at the right place at the right time. "Madison [Rigdon], our outside, was hitting and she got blocked and I covered it with my foot," Payne said. "It was the tip of my foot, and she ended up getting the kill after that."
"What in the world did you just do?" teammate Tori Miller screamed with glee when the point concluded.
Payne shrugged. "I don't know!"
This isn't soccer, so we never really kick the ball. Any time you use your foot and get a point out of it, it's a lot cooler than normal.Kelsie Payne
"It's so unique. This isn't soccer, so we never really kick the ball. Any time you use your foot and get a point out of it, it's a lot cooler than normal."
While many teams go through an entire season without registering a kick save, Kansas had multiple players with at least one. Besides Payne, Rigdon had a couple along with libero Allie Nelson.
Nelson's came against Purdue and produced a giant momentum swing thanks to the quick hands of Ainise Havili to keep the point going and Rigdon's persistence to win the point from the back row.
"I think it's just about keeping the ball off the ground however you can," Nelson said.
Oregon State setter Kylee McLaughlin is so accustomed to using her feet from her soccer days that she delights when she's able to use them in volleyball. She recalls at least two of them.
"It's habit," she said. "I have to slow down a little bit, though, because sometimes I get really close to kicking somebody in the face."