Unsung heroes
Liberos are the glue that holds volleyball teams together
Butler Eagle
Written by:
September 26, 2012
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Seneca Valley libero Angela Seman sprawls to keep the volleyball off the floor in last season’s win over Mt. Lebanon in the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals. Seman’s defensive prowess was key to the Raiders’ run to a WPIAL championship and PIAA semifinal appearance in 2011.

Angela Seman wears her bruises like badges of honor.

Seman is a junior libero for the Seneca Valley girls volleyball team. The job description for her position is not for the faint of heart:

• Must be willing to spend most nights sprawled out on the court.

• Must be able to react in an instant.

• Must be able to do the dirty work without much glory.

• Must be able to withstand pain — a lot of pain.

Seman gladly accepts all of it with a smile.

“Playing libero,” Seman says, pausing to collect her thoughts, “you know you’re going to get hurt. You know you are going to be covered in bumps and bruises. You know you’re going to have a dislocated everything. And you know nobody is going to notice.”

Seman pauses again.

“But you do it,” she says, “because you love it.”

The libero is unlike any other position on the volleyball court. She is the quarterback, the catcher and the goalie all wrapped into one.

It is perhaps the most demanding position in all of team sports — and likely the most important one, too.

If a team has a good one, like Seman, it can do great things like the Raiders were able to do last season.

With Seman gobbling up spikes like Ms. Pacman does digital pellets, Seneca Valley advanced to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals.

“Having a great libero makes all the difference in the world,” said Seneca Valley coach Karen Martini. “And Angie is a great libero. I’d say she’s the best libero in the WPIAL.”

It’s not difficult to spot Seman, or any other libero, on the court. She’s the one wearing a different color jersey than the rest of her teammates.

This is to differentiate the position, which has its own unique set of rules.

The libero was first introduced internationally in 1998 and adopted by the PIAA in 2005. The libero is a back row defensive specialist. She can come in and out without counting as a substitution and is not limited by the rules of rotation. She doesn’t serve or set or spike.

Quite simply, she’s there to keep the volleyball off the floor.

“She touches the ball on every play,” said Butler volleyball coach Meghan Lucas, a former libero herself. “She needs to have a calm demeanor on the court. She’s someone who can control chaos.”

Slippery Rock senior Megan Little also has carved out quite a high school career while playing the position.

Last year, she shattered the Rockets’ single-season record for passes in a season — and gave opposing hitters a record-setting level of frustration, too.

A libero does more than just mop up. A libero must have a certain amount of precision, as well.

She must be just as good at passing as she is at digging.

“Without her passing, we’re not able to run our offense at all,” said Slippery Rock coach Greg Dugan. “Her passes are right on the money. She gets our offense going quickly. A fast offense is important, too.”

Unlike Seman, who has been a libero since the fifth grade, Little started playing the position as a freshman on the junior varsity team.

She didn’t choose to be a libero; it chose her.

“I just kind of fell into it,” Little said. “I didn’t even know what it was.”

Little, though, had a natural aptitude for the position. She’s quick. She has good reflexes and she is relentless.

Time after time, Little has come up big.

“She’s perfect,” Dugan said. “She’s textbook.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Little, however. She had to adjust to a very counter-intuitive way of playing the game.

“You don’t watch the ball,” Little said. “That was hard getting used to.”

Instead, liberos like Little watch the body language of the hitters. Where are they standing? Where are their shoulders pointing? Anything to give her a hint at where the ball might be coming.

“Hitters give you a lot of clues that you can pick up on,” Little says, then chuckles. “They also try to trick you.”

Little, though, is rarely fooled.

Nothing pumps her up more than denying a hitter that coveted kill.

“It’s so much fun. I love it,” she said. “I get really excited when I get a hard-hit ball up and it’s a good pass, our setter makes a good set and then our hitter puts it down. I feel like I was a part of that point.”

Liberos are a special breed. Much like linemen in football and sweepers in soccer, no one carries them off the field in triumph.

“The interesting part about the libero is they don’t get the glory,” said A-C Valley volleyball coach Doug Knox. “It’s not a glorified position. They wear a different color shirt and get funny looks. But they are very important. Abby’s a perfect fit for the position. She’s lucky if she’s 5-feet tall. But she’s not afraid to hit the floor and go after it.”

Moniteau senior Ashley Brehm fits that mold, as well. At about 5-foot-1, Brehm started out as a setter, but moved to libero two years ago out of necessity.

“We were having problems in the back row,” Brehm said. “In practice, I seemed to be the best at it.”

A point guard on the Warriors’ basketball team, Brehm draws many similarities between the two positions.

“I’ve always been good at reacting,” Brehm said. “Every time a hitter goes up to spike the ball, I just have a knack for knowing where it is going.”

Brehm plans on playing basketball in college. But the libero position has opened up many more opportunities for players to find a spot and stick on a volleyball roster at the next level.

It used to be much more difficult for defensive-minded players to make a mark in college.

“The smaller kid who is great on defense gets a shot now,” said Freeport coach Tom Phillips. “A player who knows she will never be a front-row player can now be a big part of a college program. I love liberos.”

Players like Little are grateful to be able to play the position.

It’s demanding. It’s physically taxing. But it’s all theirs.

“I can’t imagine being anything else,” she said. “It’s weird to think there used to be a time when there wasn’t a libero.”