Defensive specialists short on stature, tall on value
Most successful volleyball teams have a group of front-row players who can dominate the action at the net.
They usually are the tallest players on the squad.
But there also is a place for the short athlete in girls' volleyball.
Namely, the back-row specialists.
They usually are among the shortest players on the squad. Nonetheless, they play a significant role in a team's overall competitiveness and court presence.
“The role of a defensive specialist is to, one, pass the ball accurately when receiving a serve so that we can run an efficient offense; and, two, prevent the ball from touching the ground when the opposing team runs their offense,” Chris Kelly, Baldwin's coach, said. “Defensive specialists are usually on the smaller side and are used as subs for front-row players.”
Baldwin's back row is led by Abby Wagner, a 5-foot-5 senior libero, and Brenna Green, a 5-6 junior defensive specialist.
“A good defensive specialist is one who is quick, moves well, and is aggressive, disciplined and fearless,” Kelly said. “She must also be able to read the opposing team's hitters so that she can make adjustments on the fly.
“The libero is usually your best defensive player. The libero can sub in for any back-row player without it counting as one of the (team) subs.”
Wagner and Green, along with juniors Emilia Zandier, Megan Moskiewski and Marissa Meis, and sophomore McKenzie Meis, are Baldwin's defensive specialists.
“My role as a libero is to really be a leader and encourage my team on the court. I think high intensity and good energy is key during a game,” Wagner said. “My focus on the court is playing good defense and being vocal as much as I can, as well as keeping a high-level intensity with my team while playing. I believe communication on the court is very important, and I always make sure that I'm constantly talking to my teammates. When our energy is up, there's no stopping us.”
Zandier, Moskiewski and the Meis sisters all are listed at 5-3 or shorter.
The leading defensive specialists at Brentwood are seniors Emma Betz, a libero, and Molly Huffman, who also leads the team in kills as an outside hitter.
Betz starts at the libero position for the Lady Spartans, after manning a back-row spot the past two years.
“Emma is our top defensive player because of her quickness in the back row and natural ability to read the opposing hitter and where they are going to put the ball on the court,” Kayla Hubsch, Brentwood's coach, said. “Defensive specialists play in the back row as the top passers in the game on serve-receive and defense. A good defensive specialist is quick to move her feet to the ball to have a good pass, so that the setter doesn't have to move far from her position to set the ball.
“The libero must wear a contrasting jersey color from her teammates, (and) can replace any back-row player, without prior notice to the officials. The libero does not need an official substitution check-in with the official, (and) also can play back row for two different players.”
Other defensive specialists at Brentwood are seniors Emily Kraeuter, Lindsey Powell and Morgan Carr, junior Brooke Gilchrist and sophomore Abby Wolf.
“This is Abby's first year on varsity and she has been making a huge impact in the back row,” Hubsch said. “She is quick on her feet, and has a natural ability to read the other team and where they are going to put the ball.”
Sophomore Emily Farley and junior Maggie Syverson have manned the libero position for Seton-La Salle this season.
“Depending on the needs of the team, the libero is either best passer or most consistent passer, and is best at getting under the ball,” Mark Felbinger, Seton-La Salle's coach, said. “Since they are on the court most of the time, the libero needs to run the back row similarly to how a quarterback might run a football team.
“A really good libero takes away more than a third of the court and will make the other team try to keep the ball away from them.”
Freshman prospects in the Seton-La Salle program include Maddie Boyd and Alexis Mueller, both defensive specialists.
“A good defensive specialist is quick and aggressive, tries to get to every ball and can read the opposing team's hitters well to anticipate where the ball will go,” Felbinger said. “In general, they need to be some of the best passers on the team.”
Felbinger's coaching strategy relies on the strength of his team's libero.
“They are interchangeable, but the best defensive specialist is typically the libero,” he said. “Some defensive specialists are better (at) left- or right-back defense.
“I like having the libero in the middle-back. So, the best defensive specialist in the middle-back is usually our libero.”
Two sophomore athletes have stepped into starting roles in the Thomas Jefferson backcourt.
Sydney Moran is a 5-6 libero; Julia Micklo is a 5-0 defensive specialist.
Other players in TJ's defensive corps include Julia Kelly, a senior; and juniors Nicole Saltzman and Mimi Werderber.
Saltzman, at 5-5, is the tallest player in the group.
All four local girls' volleyball teams qualified for the WPIAL playoffs.
Ray Fisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or firstname.lastname@example.org.