Call her the X-factor, call the offensive setup unique, say whatever you want, but call the Purdue Boilermakers winners as of late, with five of their last seven, including a pair of Top 15 wins over No. 3 Minnesota and No. 14 Wisconsin last week.
That X-factor is Danielle Cuttino, a senior outside hitter, make that middle blocker, from Indianapolis. After two successful seasons leading the team on the block from the middle, including an Honorable Mention All-America season in 2015, Cuttino moved to the outside in 2016. The successful transition resulted in a team-best 4.11 kills per set, unanimous All-Big Ten and Third Team All-America honors from Volleyball Magazine. After settling into her job on the outside, 19 matches into the 2017 season, Cuttino was asked to make another move, this time back to the middle as part of a hybrid offensive set.
“I think I was walking to Subway and (coach) Dave (Shondell) was walking out with the other coaches and, as they were leaving, he just said, ‘be ready to play middle this week,’” Cuttino explained. “He walked away and that was it. That was the confirmation that I was playing middle from then until now. I didn’t see it being permanent at first, but then when we started doing the offense in practice, I could see it being a normal thing. It just worked so much better for us.”
Breaking Down The Hybrid Offense
That hybrid offense, as 15th year head coach Dave Shondell explains it, was born out of necessity and provided for by Cuttino’s willingness and incredible skillset.
“Two years ago, it was her willingness to get on the outside and get more balls set to her because we knew how effective she could be there,” Shondell said. “This time, we were giving up too many points in the middle of the floor with our block and we wanted to get her back where she could defend the middle attack, the outside attack and cross-court shots. We are also able to get her the ball in a lot of different spots because she is playing in the middle. I would call it more of a hybrid middle from the standpoint that she is still getting a lot of different sets on both pins and now with a new unique concept that we are using, she is also playing in serve receive and hitting out of the back row as a middle. We did it against Penn State and, although we weren’t in top drive, I thought we competed at a high level and it proved to us that it was a move we could make. Now, we are putting our most physical team on the floor and it has been pretty effective so far and it is only going to get better.”
What makes the hybrid setup so unique is that unlike a typical rotation where a middle goes to the back row and the libero comes in for her, the system the Boilermakers are running keeps Cuttino in the game when the Boilermakers are on serve receive, and subs her out only when the team is serving.
“We can do that because our passers have really made great progress and we are confident with just about anybody back there passing, so we can take our libero out of the game on serve receive and play Danielle attacking out of the back row,” Shondell said. “I have never seen an athlete in all my days that can attack out of the back row two or three feet off the net like she can. She is just incredibly gifted, to be able to stay behind the 3-meter line, but also to attack a set that might be three feet off the net.
“We have found that the teams that are the hardest to defend are the teams that have the back court attack. That is something that has really taken over in our league. If you don’t have somebody hitting out of the back row, you are easy to defend compared to teams that are hitting pipes or bicks or D’s or whatever. Having Danielle or even Sherridan Atkinson back there sometimes makes a big difference.”
For her teammates, having Cuttino as an option in the backcourt offers a sense of confidence and relief.
“Having a back row attack is just icing on the cake, especially knowing it is Danielle,” redshirt senior setter Ashley Evans said. “We are so strong on the pins and in the middle, but then when you have Danielle in the back row, you know that if the pass isn’t perfect, it is fine. I think it takes a lot of pressure off of our pass, because they don’t have to be three-point passers the entire match because we do have that back row option. I think it just relieves some stress for the backcourt. To have anything more than three options is awesome (for me as a setter).”
From Cuttino’s perspective, it is all the same, now that she gotten past the mental hurdle of figuring out how to find a rhythm no matter where she is on the court.
“I can jump really well and obviously I am tall, so it is all mental, honestly,” Cuttino said. “It is just about the focus that you have. Even though I am technically in the middle now, I am still hitting 4’, 9’s, 5’s and then A’s, B’s and slides, whatever coach wants me to hit. Being able to change the arm swing and trying to stay in rhythm no matter what set I am hitting is really hard, but we do it in practice so much that is nearly impossible for me not to do well with it. You just have to be patient, try really hard and focus on each rep because you know it is going to help you out in the long run.”
As for hitting out of the back row as a middle, again, it is all about mentality for the Indianapolis native.
“It is fun,” she said with a chuckle. “It is almost like hitting a 2-ball and I have hit a lot of those. I did it a little when I was playing outside. It is the same kind of arm swing and approach as hitting a 4-ball, it is just kind of incorporating that into the back row. It is different, obviously, because in the front court I am hitting balls that have no spin on them. I have finally gotten into a rhythm of being able to switch sets and that helps out a lot too. This is not something we threw together; it is practiced and practiced and practiced.”
In addition to the offensive option, the tweak has provided Purdue a much stronger blocking front. Allowing the 6-foot-4 Cuttino to team up alongside 6-foot-6 Sherridan Atkinson, gives the Boilermakers’ what Shondell calls “one of the most imposing blocks in the country physically for a couple of rotations, which can negate some of the better hitters we are going to face.”
With Cuttino touching 10-feet-11 and Atkinson reaching right around 10-7, the duo is certainly hard to ignore, and puts opposing hitters and coaches in a pick your poison type situation.
“When I was playing on the outside, people would try to go away from me, so much that I wouldn’t even be able to get any action as a blocker unless I was trying to triple block on the outside,” Cuttino says of the old days – i.e. eight matches ago.” I feel like people are more intimidated by Sherridan as a blocker because she is slightly taller, so that makes them want to hit the ball at me, which either means A) I am blocking the ball or B) I am funneling it to Brooke (Peters), our libero, or C) they are going to try Sherridan and still get blocked, so it is a win-win situation for us all the way around. It is really nice because whenever we go up, I know we are going to block the ball or get a really good touch.”
More Than A Lineup Change
The talent level has always been there for Cuttino. She came into the Purdue program from Ben Davis High School and Circle City Volleyball Club as PrepVolleyball’s No. 10 Senior Ace, an Under Armour All-American, a U.S. Youth National Team member and crossover sport success having earned all-state honors on the volleyball and basketball courts.
“Danielle is one of the premier volleyball athletes in the class of 2014,” Shondell said in her signing announcement in November 2013. “She is a big-time personality, of high character and a terrific student-athlete that I think Purdue fans are going to fall in love with. We feel like she can come in here and play early on in her career. She has a lot to learn, but I really like (Danielle) and what I think she is going to be able to do for our program.”
Shondell could not have been more right about that. Cuttino played in 26 matches as a rookie, starting 18, while putting up a team-best 1.01 blocks per set. All told in her career, she has amassed 1,294 kills, while hitting at a .308 clip and notching 383 blocks. That tally has included 69 double-digit kill efforts and five or more blocks on 30 occasions.
The stats came, but the personal development took some time.
“She has matured in so many different ways,” Shondell said. “She is such a better teammate. She has made adjustments and I think everyone on our team knows that she cares about them and she wants the best for them. It is about the team. I think she has always been that way, but everybody knows it now. I think the biggest difference besides that is her work ethic in every capacity. She has become a tremendous leader by example, whereas she used to lead by what she had to say.
“In the past, Danielle would feel really good about herself in one match until something started to go south and then she would really question her abilities, even though she is as good of an athlete as I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Now, she is just much tougher and has much more confidence and belief in what she can do. You have to lean on your experience and your belief and she is just doing a really good job at that now.”
Through all of those ups and downs, Cuttino had great leaders from which to learn. A group of five players in U.S. National Team member Annie Drews, Amanda Neill, Kate Workman, Kaisley Fisher and Sam Epenesa, early in her career, who “were a little more outspoken” and allowed Cuttino to be a follower. Faye Adelaja, who “worked really hard and led by example,” helped her realize that she needed to step up as an upperclassman and grow a bit more.
But even with great role models, it took until this year for Cuttino to fully grasp what leadership required of her and her fellow seniors.
“I honestly didn’t realize it until this year that it is not everyone out there for themselves, it really is a huge team effort,” she shared. “I didn’t understand that at first and I was really within myself for a while, because I figured that if I came and brought what I needed to the table that everything else would work out for itself. You obviously hear that people look to you and you get that, but not to the extent where you realize that everything you do is impacting or rubbing off on your teammates. It is like a domino effect. Everyone can do really well or really poorly just from one person’s performance.”
The confidence and hard work that Cuttino is now bringing to the table has not gone unnoticed according to Evans.
“Every single year I think she has realized that the more work she puts in, the more she is going to get out of herself and her teammates in a season,” Evans said. “I think she has finally hit a point now as a senior and a key player on this team that this is our last shot. She has matured incredibly since her career started and it is just amazing to be a part of it and to see how far she has come. She has so much confidence and so much belief in all of the players around her and the program, just to see her lead this team and take us wherever we want to go, it is just so thrilling. It is just an honor to play with her.”
Cuttino is quick to note that the Boilermakers’ 2017 success has been a team effort, across the board, and she is not the sole leader. Along with Evans and Cuttino, outside hitter Azariah Stahl and defensive specialist Carissa Damler comprise the senior class and the group has had many conversations about how they want to leave the program.
“It is hard to think about, the time flies honestly,” she noted. “I will let it set in that I am a senior when we are done, but, until the end, we are just going to keep grinding and leaving it all out on the court. We talk to each other about how it starts with us. I think we realized that, but you really have to take on that responsibility of being responsible for everyone else whether you want to be or not. We are really trying to lead by example and leave it all out there and whatever happens, happens, but you can’t say you didn’t try and give it everything you have.”
First up on the group’s to-do list is earning home court advantage for the NCAA Tournament, something that hasn’t happened in West Lafayette since the program hosted a regional in 2012.
“A really short term goal that we all have is that we really want to host (NCAA first and second rounds),” Cuttino said. “We haven’t hosted in the four years that we have been here. That is something that I really want to do, because we play so well at home. I still want to do something that this team hasn’t done before, so we can look back and say we did everything we could with the time we had left.”
Evans agrees that hosting would be huge, not only for the team, but for its fanbase.
“It would mean everything,” Evans said. “It would mean that senior night wouldn’t be the last time that we play in Holloway Gym, so that would just be an extra gift for the season. But, more importantly, it would just give the Purdue fans and the Purdue program something to look forward to. We have worked so hard, Dave has worked so hard, the whole coaching staff has worked so hard to take this program to a national level, and we are there, but there are things we haven’t accomplished yet, and that is one of the things that is first on the list.”
With Purdue ranking 18th in the most recent RPI and boasting five RPI Top 50 wins (No. 4 Minnesota, No. 9 Creighton, No. 13 Wisconsin, No. 38 Ohio State and No. 45 Iowa) with three more chances still ahead (No. 34 Michigan twice and No. 11 Michigan State), and an offensive and defense clicking behind Cuttino and friends, achieving those goals are a definite possibility.
But, no matter the goal, one thing is for sure, the Boilermakers are ready for the challenge and they will tackle it together.
“I really think that we have the talent and now we are starting to get the leadership and cohesion as a team,” Cuttino said. “Our motto is one game at a time, one point at a time. And, as of late, that has been working for us, so I think we are just going to stick with that. We know that we cannot be stopped unless we stop ourselves. We completely believe in the system and we are all for each other.”