Changing the Game from the Back Row

By Beacon Staff

You might not understand what it is or even how to pronounce it, but the libero has changed the game of volleyball.

Since high schools officially implemented the libero – a defensive specialist who operates under her own set of rules – in 2006, girls volleyball coaches have constructed entirely new game plans and, in cases like Glacier High School, shaped their strategies around one player. The position can be puzzling to fans – liberos wear a different-colored jersey and don’t substitute in the same manner or on the same spot on the court as their teammates.

Last year, Kayla Smart won first-team all-state honors while leading Class AA in digs as libero for Glacier. Smart, a versatile and intelligent athlete throughout her athletic career at the school, switched from outside hitter to libero at the beginning of her senior year. By the end of the season, the team’s offensive and defensive schemes were based around Smart.

Smart would control an entire area of the court, digging up ball after ball and allowing her teammates to focus on other parts of the game. Instead of all six players worrying about defense, head coach Christy Harkins said she could get away with only four.

Harkins said Smart, who graduated last year, was an exceptional case, but nevertheless served as an example of how the inclusion of the libero position in high school volleyball has significantly altered the game. Harkins first began experimenting with the position in 2002 at Flathead High School, when “people weren’t sure how it was used.”

Not all teams use their liberos as Harkins did with Smart, who was always on the court. Some teams don’t even use the libero. But they have to know how to play against opponents who do.

“It’s changed the game – it’s great for the game,” Harkins said.

Liberos inject excitement into volleyball, often extending rallies by repeatedly saving points through diving digs. Introduced internationally in 1998 and then at the collegiate level in 2002, liberos are strictly back-row players who serve as quarterback equivalents on the volleyball court. They must constantly communicate with their teammates.

They are considered defensive specialists and aren’t allowed to attempt blocks, attack or venture within 10 feet of the net. Under a 2007 rule change, liberos can now serve. They need to be tough, as they spend extended periods of matches getting balls repeatedly hit at them. There’s something about the libero that seems to attract the aim of hitters.

“The jersey being a different color, they’re almost like a magnet,” Harkins said.

But even as defensive specialists, liberos are often the catalyst for the offense as well, Smart said. Many times, Smart provided the first pass of her team’s possession, before the ball reached the setter. Essentially, she was tasked with setting up the offense, similar to a point guard in basketball. From the back row, Smart could survey the court and make decisions.

With the wear and tear of constantly diving and being on the receiving end of hard-hit balls, combined with the need to maintain consistent mental focus as the offense’s catalyst, Smart said a good libero has “to be mentally tough.”

“You have to be able to let mistakes go easily,” Smart said.

Not to mention, Smart never got taken out of the match – liberos are exempt from the rotation requirements of other players. They can enter the game in any dead ball situation without having to go to the formal substitution area. They enter at a different part of the court. To avoid confusion for officials, they wear the different-colored jerseys.

When a libero enters the match, it doesn’t count against the team’s total substitutions, giving coaches the freedom to use the libero as a strategic pawn. If a girl is struggling or looking tired, a coach can replace her with a libero without it diminishing the team’s substitution total. When the benched girl is ready for action again, off the court goes the libero. Some coaches, Harkins said, use the specialized position only in these instances.

Before Smart, Harkins said she used a number of players at the position and rotated them frequently. This year, she is again expected to do some shuffling as she finds the right fit at libero. Not any girl can do it. While shorter girls who are quick and can get to the ground easier often fit the job description best, there is no generic mold for the position. Harkins plans to use both junior Cami Mathison and senior Leah Engebretson.

“If you don’t have the right girl, (the libero’s) not a good fit,” Harkins said.

Harkins has grown accustomed to explaining to parents what the libero is. Casual observers can sit through a whole match and never fully grasp what the girl in the different uniform is doing as she sporadically sprints on and off the court.

“A parent told me, ‘The freshman coach said my daughter’s going to be a libero and I don’t even know what that means,’” Harkins said.

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