Branen Berta has a serve that would make former Boston Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Tim Wakefield proud.
Berta, Iowa State’s newest libero, led the Big 12 in aces per set at one point last season. At the end of the season, she finished fifth in the conference with .30 aces per set.
Most players who have high service numbers are jump servers, but Berta has a knuckleball-like serve. Coach Christy Johnson-Lynch has called Berta the best serving libero Iowa State has ever had. That’s high praise considering Iowa State’s rich history of liberos.
“Her freshman year her serve, I thought, was very average,” Johnson-Lynch said. “I think she embraced getting better at it and developed a lot over the course of a year. By the time she became a sophomore, she became one of, if not our best, server.”
Berta worked with assistant coach Dawn Sullivan to improve her serve.
“The big thing was my toss,” Berta said. “A lot of times when my serve was just mediocre I kept tossing the ball behind me. It would cause me to bring my elbow back and hit a little bit behind me so the ball would go higher and even potentially out.
“[My toss] had to be just perfect, right in front of my right foot, right in front of my serving arm. Not too high, not too low.”
When a person watches the junior serve, it looks like any other jump-float serve. But it’s the details that separate it.
The way she hits the ball, where she hits it, how fast she hits it and the consistency she has serving it all make her serve successful.
“She hits it the same way every time,” Johnson-Lynch said. “She hits it very flat, she doesn’t put any spin on the ball — that’s really the key.
“When you watch her ball come off of her hand it really has no spin, so that allows it to move. And it comes off fast. She’s got a good arm and it comes out at a high velocity. She’s got that nice combination of the way she contacts it and how hard she hits it.”
Berta hits the ball with a very flat hand and right in the center of the ball. When she contacts the ball, she pops her hand.
“I don’t know [how I developed it],” Berta said. “I think it was just the pop of my hand. … It makes the ball move really well. I don’t know how to explain it – it floats almost. When a passer is passing it … I’ve heard that it kind of moves up on them so they don’t know exactly where it’s going to end up, or where to put their arms to pass it.
“The contact is something that really helps my serve and helps it float and move up on passers.”
Almost every server in the NCAA tries to hit a jump-float serve with no spin. Most of them can get it to work sometimes, but no one has had the success Berta has had with it.
The ball dips and darts all over the place, making it nearly impossible to judge exactly where it’ll end up. Passers have to have good reaction time, good hand-eye coordination and know exactly where to put their arms.
“I think everyone serves like her — a jump-float,” Johnson-Lynch said. “But you have to hit it very, very well. That’s what she does, and that’s what’s unique. It’s not easy to do. If it was easy I think a lot more people would have that many aces per game. I think it’s just the way she contacts the ball that makes it unique.”