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When junior Alister Bent and classmate Sindhu Vegesena step onto the volleyball court, there are two obvious characteristics that set them apart from their fellow teammates.
For one, both are clad in a different color jersey than the rest of their teammates. More significantly, both players are among the shortest on their teams.
The different color and smaller size have the same explanation: Bent and Vegesena are liberos—a special defensive position in indoor volleyball that is responsible for controlling serve receives and converting them into solid passes. The libero remains in the game at all times and is the only player who isn’t limited by the rules of rotation.
“They’re not allowed to hit over the net at all,” Bent said. “Basically their role is to be the primary serve receiver, so they should be the best passer and the best defensive players as well.”
In a game where height is traditionally an advantage, the fact that the shorter liberos stay in the game at all times may seem like an inconvenience. However, their lack of height is far from detrimental.
“Defense is actually easier when you’re shorter,” sophomore setter Corinne Bain said. “You can dive easier and be closer to the ground. It gives you more time to dig the ball.”
Dressed in a different color jersey so officials can easily track their movements, liberos emerged internationally in the late 1990s. While the direct aim of introducing such a position was to improve defense and ball movement, it also indirectly gave shorter players a chance to continue their volleyball careers.
At 5’7", Bent jumped at the chance to swap from his high school position of outside hitter to libero, as it meant being able to play college volleyball.
“I definitely wouldn’t have had an opportunity [to play college volleyball] coming out of high school being 5’7”," Bent said. “Having the libero position was definitely a chance for me to come into the program. It’s been huge in that respect."
However, other liberos such as Vegesena took a different path and developed at that position from an early age. Chosen for her high energy and desire to control the ball, Vegesena was taught how to channel these aspects of her athleticism into becoming a libero.
“I started playing club volleyball as a nine-year-old on a 12’s team, so I was shorter…than all my teammates,” Vegesena said. “I was also hyper and the worst kind of ball hog, so having that [libero] jersey gave me an excuse to behave the way I did.”
Now standing 5’8", Vegesena has come a long way from her childhood volleyball days. As libero, Vegesena is responsible for a much larger part of the court than her teammates.
The libero has been compared to the goalkeeper in the sense that it’s the job of the libero to prevent any balls from hitting the ground. On the other hand, the position also bears similarities to football quarterbacks because liberos are the first to touch the ball off the serve and therefore control the trajectory of the pass to the setter.
“When the ball’s coming to you, there’s no hiding,” Bent said. “Any ball that’s going and it’s not clear who’s ball it is, it’s the liberos. It’s their job to hustle and make sure nothings hits the ground…. Communication is key.”
Although the height requirements to play a libero are a prerequisite, the mentality required to hit the ground again and again in each game without having the satisfaction of scoring is something that needs to be cultivated. Vegesena’s discipline to play such a position came from her coaches as she got older.
“It was easy to physically sacrifice myself, but mentally I was completely undisciplined,” Vegesena said. “My coaches cracked down on me hard. I think for liberos there’s a certain standard of dependability and mental toughness that’s expected.”
The mental toughness in discussion comes handy when on the court. With volleyball serves capable of travelling almost 100 miles per hour, liberos face the daunting task of reading the server and reacting to their serves in a split second.
“We’re trained to read bodies and angles from the backcourt,” Vegesena said. “But there are times when plays are too fast to read and your body just reacts. I’d say that’s my favorite part [of being a libero].
These nuanced challenges faced by the libero can be lost upon the crowd during matches. When all eyes are on the hitters who are scoring the points, it’s easy to overlook the foundation on which all offensive play is built—the libero.
On the court, however, it’s a different story.
“If the libero’s having an amazing day, it’s very noticeable to the players on the team,” Bain said. “It might not be noticeable to the crowd, but it’s definitely noticeable to us. Libero’s make all the difference to the rest of us.”
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