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Libero: A story of another color

Three schools, three stories of volleyball life and the libero position

Moultonboro Academy libero Kassie Malm (black jersey) listens during a timeout at a recent match. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
October 17, 2011
REGION — Since its official introduction into international volleyball over a decade ago, the libero position has been a topic of much discussion. Libero, an Italian word meaning 'free,' has brought about great change in the sport, as teams are able to devote one player exclusively to defense. With that comes the bonus that substitutions involving the libero are free-flowing, meaning someone in that position has the ability to play through six rotations along the back row.

While there is still much confusion as to what the libero can or can't do on the court from many spectators, and the dreaded questions about the different-colored jersey required by the sport for liberos are common practice during the fall season, this article is to inform and educate on the position that has become an important part of the sport of volleyball. What follows are opinions and discussion from three different high school volleyball teams in the Lakes Region, with Division II Gilford High School and Division III Inter-Lakes High School and Moultonboro Academy the teams of focus.

Gilford High School

Veteran Golden Eagles head coach Joan Forge has seen the sport change on several occasions during her coaching career. If anyone is qualified to define the libero position in her own words, it's Forge:

"The basic rules to know are that (liberos) are not allowed to set (the ball) in front of the three-meter line so you can't take the role of setter," Forge explained. "You also can't attack the ball above the height of the net, meaning you can't jump and hit from the back row. Most liberos of average height are going to get called for that, hitting from the back."

The main advantage the position allows for is in substitutions, as the libero can replace any back-row player, without prior notice to the officials. This replacement does not count against the substitution limit each team is allowed per set, although the libero may be replaced only by the player whom they replaced.

Forge has gotten steady play all season from her starting libero, senior Jasmyn Starr, who has taken the 'white jersey' of the position and run with it.

"I like it a lot," said Starr of her spot. "It's exciting and you have to move on your feet, always doing something."

Starr missed half of last season due to injury, and she served as a defensive specialist for the postseason run. But she came in ready to go this fall and has been a steady passing force along the Gilford back row.

"The biggest thing for the libero is that I think passing is the biggest part of the game," explained Forge. "If you can pass on serve receive and defense, you're going to be in most games. So you want your libero to be responsible for 40-50 percent of the serves coming in."

While the setter is usually the most vocal force on the floor, liberos are the unofficial leaders of the back row. Starr takes pride in that role, especially as a senior in her final season in Gilford.

"Both positions (setter and libero) are leaders so if there's a ball, I get to call for it if I think I can get to it," she said. "I've always been a setter so I'm used to taking charge and talking on the court for everyone else to know what's going on."

Forge said she often waits until a player reaches the varsity level before training them to play the position, as she wants her freshmen to play every position when they enter the program. JV begins to turn some into defensive specialists, and she'll then take one of those and make them her libero on varsity.

"You take one of your best passers," she said. "They've got to have a few characteristics that go along with them though, they have to be a calming, steady force. They have to be instinctive and vocal, have to take leadership responsibilities for the whole court."

Forge enjoys what the position has brought to the game, and Gilford has used the position wisely during her tenure.

"I think the reason it was instituted is to make the game of volleyball flow better," she said. "It makes for more exciting, longer rallies and everyone benefits from that. It's a tall person sport, and the libero gives those players who are vertically challenged a chance to make a difference."

Inter-Lakes High School

If the last two years are any indication, the libero position at Inter-Lakes High School is 'All in the Family.'

Sophomore Lydia Swedberg stepped into the role this fall after watching older sister Sophie occupy the spot last year during her senior campaign. The transition has been a smooth one in Meredith.

"Having her play the position definitely helped me out," said Swedberg of her older sister. "My strength has always been passing so coming into this season I guess it was a good fit."

While different teams use their liberos in different ways, I-L coach Randy Mattson says her libero is 'typically used as (her) seventh player in the starting lineup.'

"The advantage with the way I do it is that the libero is always going in for the middle in the back row," Mattson explained. "So there are some added incentives to that as well. It can also serve as motivation, I think, for the middles to not want to get replaced."

The impact of the position has most definitely been noticed by Mattson.

"It's changed the sport dramatically," she said. "It allows smaller people to stay in the whole time, which is great. You get so used to it that now it just seems so natural and part of the game."

On an experienced team with seniors at setter (Hanna Roberge) and outside hitter (Kira Goodheart), Swedberg has been able to ease into the slot on the floor this season. That doesn't mean she's been behind however, as the sophomore has been a quick study and key cog in the Lakers' lineup.

"The libero to me is the leader of the back row and it's been fun to try and take on that role," Swedberg said. "I definitely find myself watching the tendencies of the other teams' servers, trying to find where they like to put the ball and things like that because it's an important part of my job."

Swedberg has a lot of the things Mattson looks for in a libero, and the fact that she's gaining the experience as a sophomore will only help I-L down the road.

"You definitely want someone who is a good communicator and Lydia is very capable of growing into that part," said Mattson. "And you want that mentality to be for them to go for the ball no matter what. She's done a really nice job for us this year."

Moultonboro Academy

Kassie Malm gets her share of questions when she walks off the floor after a match. If you aren't a regular at volleyball matches, you may be wondering why she's wearing a black jersey. The rest of her team is dressed in red.

"People will definitely ask why I'm wearing a black jersey and everyone else is wearing red," says Malm, the MA starting libero. "Then you've got to explain to them what a libero is, why I play it, all that."

Panthers coach John Garneau expects a lot from his starting liberos, and he's gotten just that during his career at MA.

"I've only had two liberos (at MA), Tawnya Calzada and Kass," Garneau said. "Both were terrific. They have to be gusty, not afraid to get beat up. So if you can find someone that is brave, courageous….then you can start to train them. You have to have a mindset to be able to do this. Liberos have to be ready to go all the time."

Garneau has been using a variation of the position since his early coaching days, though the official position is slightly different than what he employed back in the day.

"I love the libero," he said. "I used it 25 years ago… I called it a rover back then. The libero has to be a very intelligent person, they have to know the game and the rules because there's a lot to understand with the position."

Enter Malm, who in her senior year has three years of experience at the position to fall back on.

"I started training for it as a freshman," she explained. "We had a libero then (Calzada) so I started playing it my sophomore year after she graduated."

Being able to have a player concentrate on defense is a valuable asset, and Garneau admits that one spot on the floor can make a huge difference from year to year.

"It makes your defense so much more effective," he explained. "Once you get someone you can train, then they can focus on defense and I think it makes a big difference. The more time you can devote to playing defense and passing out of the back row, the better you're going to make the rest of your team."

While Malm says she enjoys playing a variety of positions during practice to stay balanced, she knows she's making the most of her skills when she pulls the black jersey on for matches.

"Well I'm not very tall," she said with a laugh. "But I like to dive around and all that kind of stuff, which is perfect for liberos. I'll get my share of bruises and stuff throughout the season, you come to expect that when you're throwing your body around to get to the ball."

Malm also knows that your head needs to be in the match at all times as a libero, as the quick and free substitutions can happen at a seconds notice, especially when errors start piling up along the back row.

"You always have to be ready, paying attention when you're on the bench," she said. "Coach is paying attention to everything going on so he might tell me to run out there really quickly and take someone out and I'll have to be ready to go."

Salmon Press
Martin Lord Osman
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