More than 60 years ago, Muhammad Ali coined the phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” to describe his young and charismatic boxing style.
Today the same phrase could easily be used as a definition for what has become a needed staple for high school volleyball players wishing to enter the elite status - the jump serve.
It’s pretty to watch but hard to defend against, say area high school and college coaches.
“The jump serve has come to dominate the women’s game,” said University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma head coach Richard Barker.
The former Calumet High School skipper, who won a Class 4A state title at Tulsa Cascia Hall and then a Class 6A title at Owasso, says there are two styles to the jump serve which dominates the college and international ranks.
The most common used in high schools across Oklahoma is the float serve, while the other is the top spin, which Barker says is tougher to master.
“The most common and the one I certainly teach at the club ball level is the jump float serve. The top spin is still there but the jump float serve is the name of the game in high school and middle schools,” said Barker.
The jump serve has been around for decades, but is widely considered to have been popularized by the Brazilian national team during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The upper echelon high school teams in Oklahoma have used the serve for years, but it has slowly started filtering down to schools wishing to make the jump into a state-title contender.
“The advantage to using it is that it has a higher contact point and it has a flat trajectory that is designed to be a short-travel ball. It drops right after it crosses the net, which makes it harder to read and anticipate, especially for younger players.
“It’s highly effective for the girls that can do it,” said Barker.
El Reno High School, which currently ranks No.8 in Class 5A, has been moving steadily over the past five years toward having players add the jump serve to their game.
“Up until three years ago we were having to teach girls how to overhand serve as freshmen because we would have girls that were only in the gym from August to October and outside of that would not think much about volleyball.
“Now we are getting a different type of athlete and some like to play year-round. When we are not having to teach them how to overhand serve as a freshman, then we can teach them more. Once they get the overhand serve down, the next natural step is to throw the ball up and see if you can jump and hit it,” said El Reno head coach Kristen Koehler.
Koehler says having the jump serve is an added weapon to her team’s offensive attack.
“The jump serve is not always your best serve but it’s a weapon you can use. You can have your players that have the float serve that will get you a few points, and then you come out with a jump serve that is a lot faster and it’s not what they (opponent) is expecting and you don’t always have that predictable serve,” said Koehler.
Union City head coach Daniel Anderson, who has taken two teams to state and one of those to the finals, says the jump serve can be a threat if you have a player that can do it consistently without errors.
“We have faced a few jump servers that can make the ball dive and that can be tough. There just are not that many teams that we see that can do it that well.
“I’ve never feared facing a jump server more than a regular server. A good server can pick you apart if you can’t pass the ball. I’m sure the volleyball gurus will tell you there is an advantage to the jump serve, but I’m not sure what it is at the level we play at,” said Anderson.
Anderson points to his three All-State players, one of those foreign exchange student Elina Duurkoop, none of whom jump serve.
“I’m not sure I have ever had a jump server. We’ve had girls that mess around with it in practice but it’s never been better than their regular serve. We have had more errors with it than our traditional serve and I think we have lost some momentum in matches because of those errors – so I don’t worry about it,” said Anderson.
El Reno has four players in its top seven rotation who jump serve. Koehler says she has others who have worked with it in practice, but like Anderson, feels the errors are not worth having them use it solely in a match.
“Girls want to do what looks cool and they see the powerhouse teams doing it all the time so they think they need to do it to make us look better. But if we lose our serve, we lose our opportunity to score points.
“If they can't serve at 90 to 95 percent jump serving, then I won’t allow them to do it,” said Koehler.
What is a jump serve?
The name alone is all you need to know, but its not as simple as it sounds. It’s different from a flat-footed standing serve in that a player runs toward the back line, tosses the ball in the air and then makes contact.
There are, however, rules that must be followed.
The player must not make any contact with the end line or the playing area outside of the service zone until after contact with the ball is made. Once contact is made, a player can land inside the playing area.
If contact with the line or playing area is made before the hit, it’s deemed a fault.
“I try to teach it to girls as young as 12 years old. The advantage is that you have the body mass moving forward as part of the power instead of just swinging at the ball and losing control.
“You are actually just punching the ball forward and that gives you more control, even at a younger age,” said Barker.
The jump float serve is not hard to pick up, it just takes time to deliver it at a high percentage according to El Reno senior Hannah Cerne.
“I learned the float jump serve in my first year of club ball and it took practice to get the hang of it. It took me longer to get consistent with it and I’ve just gotten better from there with it,” said Cerne.
Cerne, who plays the libero position for EHS, says she can do both types of jump serves.
“The top spin is harder to learn because it’s a lot different because they are two different tosses. I like the float serve because I can place it a lot better and my top spin is not as consistent,” said Cerne.
Timing is the key component to both types of jump serves, says Cerne’s twin sister, Lauren, an outside hitter who says she learned how to do both jumps at the same time as her sibling.
“It’s not hard to learn but you have to work on your timing and how high you want the ball to go. It’s a lower toss and you hit it off the palm of your hand. As long as you practice it there is not a problem with consistency,” said Lauren.
The sisters agree that their float jump serve, though learned at the same time, differ even for twins.
“We both learned it at the same time and we just sort of picked it up. I would say Hannah does it better because she is more consistent than I am, but I serve it harder,” said Lauren.
So how effective can the change of pace serve be?
Over the last nine matches of the 2018 season, El Reno’s four jump servers are all averaging 87 percent or higher. The group has served 357 times with 32 errors for a collective average of 91 percent. The foursome has logged 46 ace serves and the team has won 220 points off jump serves.
The jumpers are keeping pace with the rest of the El Reno team and the traditional standing serve, which has produced 185 good serves out of 195 attempts for 95 percent. Those serves have logged 24 aces and 100 points served.
El Reno senior Tori Finnigan says she learned to jump serve the summer before her freshman year and that she prefers it over a standing serve.
“I actually forgot how to flat-foot serve until this summer when I was doing beach volleyball and I could not jump well in the sand. I like to jump serve because there are the different types you can learn and you don’t have to hit it as far and it’s coming straight down at you with some power,” said Finnigan.
Finnigan, who is a middle blocker, says her height suits the jump serve.
“The taller people in college all jump serve because the ball comes straight down right over the net and that’s what you want – I’m just not there with mine as of yet.
“It’s a different weapon and I think it psyches the other team out. When a team sees a flat-footed server they never think anything about it, but when they are jump serving they take notice in that it will be a tougher serve,” said Finnigan.