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Liberating high school volleyball

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Posted: Tuesday, October 4, 2005 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:49 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

October 5, 2005 - Allison Zeeb doesn't know its meaning. Neither does Stephanie Link or Aubry Rosemore. The etymology sails over their heads like a wayward serve.

The word is "libero," and although its exact meaning escapes those have become one this year, the position itself is revolutionizing high school volleyball in Arizona.

Starting this season, the Arizona Interscholastic Association has allowed high school volleyball teams to use a new position in their lineups, the libero. In February, the National Federation of State High School Associations approved the position for full-time use starting with the 2006-07 season, but in Arizona - a state originally slow to officially recognize boy's volleyball - the libero has been adopted a year early.

Pronunciations can go any of two ways. They jump back and forth between "lee-bah-row" and "lib-air-oh," depending on whom you ask and which day you ask.

In its simplest form, the libero - Italian for "I liberate" - is a defensive specialist. A closer look, however, reveals a skilled position that inspires leadership on the court and provokes strategy on the benches.

Although new to the high school ranks, the libero has been used on the club, collegiate and international levels for more than three years.

At first glance, its rules of engagement are as complicated as its pronunciation.

"It was a little confusing at first," said Angela Hunnicutt, a former defensive specialist and current head coach of Green Fields Country Day School, about starting to use the new position.

Designated on the lineup sheet prior to the game, the libero's primary function is defense. The libero, who dons a different color uniform from teammates, cannot serve, block or attempt to block a shot. The libero must enter the game between the attack line and baseline and cannot set a ball using an overhand finger pass while in front of the attack line for an attack above the height of the net. In substitutions, the libero may only be replaced by the person he or she originally subbed for.

Confusing in its technical jargon, yes. Simplified, the libero is a defensive replacement who can't serve or attack but patrols the backcourt and through crafty substitutions can play just about an entire game as a team's sixth player.

"It wasn't too tough to learn," said Link, a senior on Ironwood Ridge High School's volleyball team about adjusting to her new role as libero this year. "I just got to remember where I am on the court at all times."

Now, being essentially in charge of the back row, most liberos act as leaders on the court.

"I'm always in the game," said Zeeb, a senior on the CDO squad, "I feel like the team fireball."

Zeeb's counterpart at Marana High School and teammate on Club Cactus, Rosemore echoed her sentiments.

"You have to be the best passer," Rosemore said. "You've got to be the 'go to girl' and keep the team up."

Not coincidentally, players like Zeeb, Link, Rosemore and Nikki Burzloff of Mountain View High School are all born of the same mold: feisty spark plugs with little regard for their own body, throwing it around the court, the only thing slowing it down being that hideous screech of skin on the gym floor.

Reckless abandon aside, these players possess another commonality: height, and not much of it.

"It (the libero) gives the shorter athlete a chance to go to a big school," said CDO head coach Melva Lundy, who knows a thing or two about placing her players at big schools. Lundy's former athletes can be found littered throughout the Southwest at schools such as the University of Arizona and the University of New Mexico.

It's also no coincidence that most liberos are among the best passers on their respective teams.

The new position has also drastically reduced the number of subs most teams are using during a regular 25-point match. The rule is capped at 18 subs per contest, but, according to most coaches, now they don't even come close to that number, which leads some to believe that the max-on-subs rule will ultimately be rendered obsolete.

In a game played between CDO and Marana on Sept. 27 at CDO, the Dorados and Tigers used 24 and 23 subs respectively over the course of three matches.

"We're not coming close to 18 subs anymore," said Marana head coach Cindy Meekin, who, like Lundy, estimated her sub totals to be 12 a game before the libero was instituted.

When a libero enters or exits a game, he or she no longer has to go through the process of checking in and out at the scorers' table. Often, liberos are so in tune with the game that they are up and off the bench without the direction of the head coach.

With sub protocol faster, games are faster, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Many coaches, such as Bill Lang of Ironwood Ridge, believe games are too quick to begin with and don't allow teams to find the proper flow. Lang, who is an advocate of the libero, thinks the next step for the AIA is to increase games from a best of three format to three out of five.

Standing in the way of such a change, said Lang, are athletic directors and principals who believe the length of travel is getting kids home too late at night. According to the Nighthawk coach, 92 percent of the state's coaches were in favor of adopting the amendment to games, but they were nixed by the athletic directors and principals.

An average girls' game is 35 minutes. The boys tend to speed along even faster at 30 minutes per contest, Lang said.

"You can't get better in competition if you're only playing half an hour a night," said the Ironwood Ridge skipper who piloted his girls squad to runner-up in the state last year. "It takes until the middle of the season for non-club players to start hitting their groove. Therefore, early season tournaments are becoming more and more important to finding that groove."

The addition of the libero is meant to catch the high school game up with the club, collegiate and international levels of competition. Club players, such as Zeeb and Rosemore, hold a slight advantage when it comes to finding that "groove" and level of experience over non-club athletes who play multiple sports.

The libero is just as popular and effective on the club level.

"It gives players who maybe wouldn't have the opportunity to play that opportunity," said Jonathan North, director of Pima County-based Club Cactus Juniors. "Kids who don't have the ability to play in the front row, instead of being just a defensive specialist where you have to use a sub and then have them rotate into the back row, you can have a libero."

No matter how it's pronounced, the libero is liberating the way volleyball is being played throughout the state. In the spring, the boys will follow suit and adopt the position as well, and high school volleyball in Arizona will take one more step closer to unifying with its counterparts at the club, college and international levels.

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