Dig, Dig, Dig: Libero Position Is Changing Volleyball

Forest Park's Kirsten Higareda is one of the first to play libero, a defensive position, in high school volleyball. She entered the season with 614 career digs.
Forest Park's Kirsten Higareda is one of the first to play libero, a defensive position, in high school volleyball. She entered the season with 614 career digs. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Preston Williams
Thursday, September 20, 2007

For certain volleyball players, explaining -- or even pronouncing -- their position is as difficult as playing it.

Is Forest Park senior libero Kirsten Higareda a LEE-bah-ro, as some say, or a LUH-bare-0h, as others pronounce it? And what the heck is it? Until 2005, the position did not exist in girls' high school volleyball; it was introduced on the college level only a few years earlier and on the international level in 1998.

Confusing the masses further is that the libero (Italian for "free") does not wear the same uniform as her teammates. She is in a contrasting color so she can stand out for officials.

"Did you forget yours?" curious Forest Park fans might ask Higareda, a second-team All-Met last season, when they see her wearing a dark green shirt with her blue Spandex shorts instead of a white jersey like her Bruin teammates.

So Higareda has to school the uninformed on the uniform.

"You try to explain, and they just look at you with a confused look on their face, and you're just like, 'Never mind,' " Higareda said last week after practice at Forest Park, which reached the Virginia AAA semifinals last season.

And how many times did she attempt an explanation before learning to give the brief, broad answer of "I'm a specific defensive player"?

"Probably about 10," the former setter said.

This is not your mother's high school volleyball. The third-most popular girls' high school sport nationally, behind basketball and outdoor track and field, has undergone major renovations in recent years, with the introduction of rally scoring -- meaning you don't have to be the serving team to earn points -- and the phasing in of the libero, which has extended rallies and juiced up the underrated sport.

(If writing about this new position lumps the Varsity Letter in with the "libero media," so be it.)

Liberos are back-row defensive specialists -- think of them as the quarterbacks of the defense -- who can enter and leave the game freely and not count toward a team's substitution allotment, which is why they wear the special jerseys. They are sort of the defensive equivalent of designated hitters in baseball or softball; they dig out balls hit by the opposing team and pass to teammates. Some have dubbed them designated diggers.

What differentiates them from other volleyball defensive specialists is that other players have to rotate out and are on the bench half of the time; liberos can stay on the floor almost the entire game, and coaches can move them around the back row like pawns.


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