AUSTIN — Perhaps Wichita State volleyball fans think every team plays this way. Perhaps they think every school employs a coach who can rebuild the engine in a 1965 Mustang, change defenses so often opponents lose count and change the way coaching friends regard statistics.
After all, Chris Lamb is, for most Shocker volleyball fans, the only coach and style of play they know. Not many watched before Lamb arrived, 13 seasons ago, and built WSU into a consistent NCAA Tournament team. This season is his postseason masterpiece, with the Shockers (24-9) playing sixth-seeded Southern California in the Sweet 16 on Friday in the Austin Regional.
They are here, in large part, because Lamb might be the nation’s most unique volleyball coach. Most teams don’t play this way and most coaches can’t conceive of how Lamb does it.
“He’s kind of a savant,” Colorado State coach Tom Hilbert said. “He can watch a game and make a decision about what his team needs to do that will disrupt the other team. When he explains it to me — it’s hard for me to understand.”
USC coach Mick Haley doesn’t want his team to understand WSU’s variety and misdirection, lest they grow mesmerized and uncertain. He tells them to ignore the system and focus on the concepts.
“He’s kind of like the mad scientist,” Haley said. “He’ll flip the lefts. He’ll flip the right and the left. He’ll flip the middles. It’s like the basketball teams that now don’t run any set plays.”
What matters is that the Shockers understand Lamb. WSU plays an infinite number of defenses, each equipped with many variations. Most teams play two or three. He switches player’s positions without hesitation. He scraps gameplans in the second set. The Shockers do drills called “Man vs. Wild” and “Price is Right.” His offense changes attack zones and tempos minute-by-minute during a set.
Most coaches worry their athletes couldn’t handle the audibles, the demands in practice, the uncertainty, the change. The Shockers do it because that’s the way Lamb works.
“It’s almost like a normal thing here,” junior middle Ashley Andrade said. “At another school, it would be like ‘He switched outsides — oh my gosh, what is he doing?’ Here it’s like any other day.”
In early November, he moved two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference left Emily Adney to the right. She returned to the left last weekend in the NCAA Tournament. Deep reserves are used to entering a game for the first time to serve in a crucial spot.
“He always knows we’re going to try and give our best effort,” Adney said. “When I moved to right, he knows I’m not going to be annoyed.”
The Shockers spent the week working on strategies that might make the Trojans and their group of big hitters uncomfortable. Lamb will have a list of twists ready. His approach makes the Shockers difficult to scout — either because it is impossible to prepare for it all or because Lamb will change and render the report meaningless. His teams in 2008 and 2009 played it straighter because they could. With this team, the adjustments are necessary.
“I live and die with that philosophy,” he said. “These guys, as long as they’ve been in the program, that’s all they know. Any day now, Chris is going to try something different so they’re comfortable with it. I’ve got coaches, good friends of mine, say they would paralyze their team if they just switched the two outside hitters in a game.”
Other than his players, the only people who understand Lamb might be the members of his volleyball think tank. Lamb, Arizona coach Dave Rubio, Sonoma State coach Bear Grassl and Cal State Northridge assistant coach John Price are connected by group texts and a passion to find new ways to play volleyball. Rubio and Price will be in Austin on Friday to cheer for their friend in his biggest match. Rubio compares Lamb’s innovative streak to when Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry turned the shotgun snap from a gimmick to a staple of his offense.
“It’s remarkable the kind of brain this guy has,” Rubio said. “He looks at volleyball in a whole different way.”
Lamb served as Rubio’s assistant for two years before coming to WSU. He convinced Rubio that statistics can help shape lineups and strategies in ways Rubio never considered. Lamb tracks “perfect passes” and “out of system” percentages. He sets statistical standards, comparing his team to national and conference opponents, that the Shockers must meet to be successful. Rubio used to ignore those numbers. Now he uses many of the same figures Lamb relies on to set his lineups and strategies.
“All of that came from Chris,” Rubio said.
Rubio sent Lamb to WSU in 2000 confident that he work harder than most coaches and build a program. Lamb coached high school, club and small-college volleyball in California, preparing him to take on all aspects of WSU volleyball.
In the early years, he built each senior a wooden shadowbox in his garage, filling it with pictures and their jersey. In recent years, WSU’s budget grew, but Lamb continued to insist on making the parting gifts himself. That is the coach Rubio knows as someone who grew up working hard and doing things himself in the blue-collar town of Sonoma, Calif.
“He was never afraid to get his hands dirty,” Rubio said. “The guy can tear down a car and put it back together. He takes that kind of thinking into volleyball.”