By Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers
PORTALES — The word doesn’t exist in a standard dictionary, but it has a meaning in volleyball. What that meaning is depends on who and when you ask.
The word is libero, and it’s one that high school volleyball fans will be more familiar with as the sports season progresses.
The libero is a designated defensive player who can enter for a back row player during a dead ball. The libero cannot do serve, set, or do blocks or kills at the net. Coaches consider it volleyball’s version of baseball’s designated hitter, except for defense.
In its description, the libero seems like a limited position for coaches and players. The payoff is that libero substitutions do not count against a team’s per-game limit, so coaches can sub out their best offensive players without losing one of their 18 substitutions each game.
Clovis coach Darrel Ray said his program is already implementing the position throughout the varsity and lower levels for the Lady Wildcats, and figures that schools in larger classifications will do the same.
“I do like it,” Ray said, “from the standpoint that it puts a big emphasis for a kid that can pass.”
It’s something the Lady Cats could have used last year at Sandia High. In a tight match, Ray said his team ran out of substitutions and pretty much lost hope of pulling off an upset.
“We’re playing No. 1 on the road,” Ray said. “A kid who never serves, never plays back row, she’s got to stay in.”
Now, Ray can use senior Jessica Russell instead, and give offensive players like Aimee Hilburn and Brittany Blackmon a rest without worrying about running out of subs.
The libero will be easy enough to determine. She is designated before the game and wears a different color jersey or shirt, and cannot play as any other position during a match unless injuries leave the team shorthanded.
The position was implemented by the New Mexico Activities Association after favorable reviews from college coaches over the last two seasons.
Mike Maguire, the volleyball coach at Eastern New Mexico University, said he liked the position when it came into the college game, but noted that it gave some teams an advantage early on.
“There were teams that already had defensive specialists who were perfect fits,” Maguire said. “Now, teams are recruiting for it and it’s evened out.”
High school coaches don’t have the luxury of recruiting a libero, so they’ve got to find one from their current crop of players. The balance is finding somebody skilled enough to play as a libero, but not taking away a skilled offensive player.
That’s the struggle Portales coach Ruth Chavez is dealing with in the preseason. When asked who would make a good libero, she suggested junior Amanda Terry.
“She’s defensively sound, very good,” Chavez said.
Just as quickly, Chavez said that Terry is one of the team’s better servers, and she’s not sure if she wants to sacrifice Terry’s serves for the impact she’d have as a libero.
Chavez said she’ll experiment with the position during the season, but feels confident enough in her defense to not use the position at the Wildcat Invitational next weekend in Clovis.
“Right now, I have a really solid back row,” Chavez said after Thursday’s practice.
However, Chavez admits that those back row players aren’t tall. That could create problems if Portales runs out of substitutions when a pivotal game is in a deadlock, and a 5-foot-1 back row players end up rotating to the front row against a 5-11 outside hitter.
When she knows that she’s going to face that situation, Chavez said she tells her players not to panic. Coaching can only go so far, though.
“Once you put those (shorter) girls on the front,” Chavez said, “your block is gone.”