The unsung heroes of the volleyball court

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Ari Davis
Makenna Santiago bumps the ball in the game against OSU. Santiago has made over 100 digs this season. (Ari Davis)

They are the ones who touch the ball first as soon as it crosses the net.

They are the first line of defense. Their team depends on them to give a good pass to the setter. Without the good pass, there is no good set, which means no good kill. The success of the team starts with their ability to deliver.

The pressure is mounting. Defensive specialists and liberos have to think of the placement of the server or hitter on the other side, the angle and speed of the volleyball coming over, timing with their platform (forearms) with the ball and absorbing enough energy to get the ball directly to the setter.

Defensive specialists and liberos are the unsung heroes of the volleyball court.

Ciara Parker, Makenna Santiago and Jaiden Achermann are defensive specialists and liberos for the BYU women’s volleyball team. The job of a defensive specialist and libero is defending and passing. These athletes defend and play in the back court. They are the athletes who have the best passing, defending and serve-receive skills among their teammates.

“The team is relying on us to get good passes and to get good balls up,” Junior athlete Santiago said. “I think that might be our biggest challenge. That’s our only job we need to be good at, otherwise our team isn’t able to be successful.”

Santiago set a new career-high record with 12 digs in the latest game against Gonzaga this season. She has made over 100 successful digs this year. Sophomore Achermann has also made over 100 digs this season. Parker, a senior, has made over 300 digs this season and over 1,500 digs in her collegiate career.

All of these athletes have defended the back court well.

“In our gym, Heather (Olmstead) has me passing as many balls as I can,” Parker said. “If I can see it and if I can get it, she wants me to pass it. So there’s a little bit more pressure there, but I love it. I love to dig those big hits and stop the other team’s momentum and give my team some of that momentum.”

Ari Davis
Ciara Parker bumps the ball in the game against OSU. Parker has made over 300 digs this season and over 1,500 digs in her collegiate career. (Ari Davis)

Parker and the other athletes all agree that defense and passing is their favorite part of volleyball. The rush of getting a dig right to where the setter needs it is a thrill for them. It might seem easy to the untrained eye or to the biggest volleyball fan. But the defensive specialists and liberos only make it look easy.

Their eyes are constantly following the ball. They have to see where the setter or hitter is coming from in relation to their position the court. The angle, speed and strength of the opposing athlete also needs to be considered. Is she jump-floating the serve or is she staying on the ground? How hard is she hitting to me or my teammate? They need to quickly analyze the opponent with the ball and prepare to receive the ball on their end.

The defensive specialist and libero needs to think about their timing with the volleyball and their platform. If she’s too late, she’ll “shank” the ball and send it flying away from the court. If she’s too early, the ball will be low and hard to control. The volleyball is also being hit with great force and defensive specialist need to slow that speed down to better control the ball.

There is a lot to think about and yet, these unsung heroes of the back court make it look easy or simple.

It’s not, but when they do well, it sends a chain reaction of success to their other teammates.

“If everyone does their role, we will win,” Achermann said.

A dig or a pass might not seem as exciting or noticeable in the rush of a volleyball game. The massive group of fans roar when a kill slams to the other side of the court or when the opponents are roofed by a successful block. Occasionally the setter will get a kill by tricking the team and sending the ball over into a hole on the second touch.

Ari Davis
Jaiden Achermann bumps the ball in the game against OSU. Achermann has made over 100 digs this season. (Ari Davis)

Rarely do volleyball fans cheer with that same level of enthusiasm for a nail-biting and gut-wrenching successful dig. But they should.

The success of the hitters, blockers and setters rely on the success of the defensive specialist and libero. Ask any one of the players on the volleyball team about how they felt about their own personal success and they will give credit to that first line of defense.

“We love getting those good passes and when they turn around and get a kill and look at you and say, ‘great pass,’ it feels good,” Santiago said.

They might not get glory or praise for what they do, but defense and passing is something they love. They are fearless as balls are hurled at their faces. They are hungry for the ball to come to them. They want the ball. They want the pass. Stopping their opponent’s best hit is the greatest feeling for them.

“We just get balls hit at us all the time,” Achermann said. “We get bruises, but that’s libero life. We get bruised up and beat up but it’s worth it. They’re like trophies.”

Defensive specialists and liberos. The unsung heroes of the game. Without them there is no game and all is lost. With them there is everything to gain, victory and all that comes with it.

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