GRANITE FALLS — One of the first positions that stands out on a volleyball court is the libero.
The back-row player wears a different colored uniform than her teammates and is often the player digging out spikes or making the first pass on offense. The position can substitute freely with a player on the back line, allowing teams to bring in a defensive specialist when their front-row players rotate to the back. The position is a staple in most lineups, but it isn’t a requirement.
And at Granite Falls High School, the volleyball team is doing things a bit differently this season, playing without a libero while relying on a six-player rotation.
“I have had all the (other volleyball) coaches ask, ‘Do you really just have six players on your roster?’” Tigers coach Deanna Haviland said. “… I guess it is kind of weird, but it works for us right now.”
Granite Falls was 3-3 overall and 0-2 in North Sound Conference play heading into Wednesday’s match at South Whidbey.
The team’s decision to go without a libero this season stems from senior Jenny Rodenbaugh asking Haviland last year what it would take to stay on the court and not be subbed out. Haviland responded by telling Rodenbaugh, a middle blocker, that she’d need to improve on her passing and digging to avoid getting pulled out when rotating to the back line. Rodenbaugh rose to the occasion and her teammates wanted to follow suit so they could stay on the court as well.
“The other girls were like, ‘Well, I don’t want someone to go in for me,’” Haviland said. “And so we really started saying, ‘Why aren’t these girls strong enough to go around (and play each position)? Why do we have to build defensive specialists that only play in the back row?’”
The Tigers’ varsity roster has just six players on it, although the team does pull a few junior-varsity players up to varsity games in case of injury and for the occasional substitution.
“This group of girls really truly want to be in the game all the time and (be) on top of it,” Haviland said. “It’s a struggle sometimes when I have someone who’s struggling with passing for a minute and I think, ‘Man, it would be nice to put a libero in.’ But then I think, ‘Well, who’s a better passer? These girls have worked hard to be the best passers that they can be.’”
Haviland said the six girls listed on the varsity roster — seniors Rodenbaugh and Rylee Downs, juniors Kendra Sucich, Vicky Rodenbaugh and Ashley Palfrey, and sophomore Shaylie Byde — are on the court together 90-95% of the time.
For the players, it’s a unique opportunity to play from all the different spots on the court.
“Nobody wants to pass all the time,” said Sucich, who at 5-foot-6 likely would be slotted as a back-row player on most teams because of her height. “Being able to hit and being able to take a second ball and set it up, just being able to set up a good play is really fun instead of doing just that one thing. Like just hitting a ball isn’t fun. You want to move around and get to different balls.”
It also allows the players to diversify their skill-sets for the future.
“Some of these girls might play community college volleyball, and they’re not necessarily going to play the position that I have them in,” Haviland said. “So I’m doing them a disservice if I only allow them to play one position and don’t give them exposure to something else.”
Without a specialist at libero roaming the back line and acting as the primary receiver on the first hit, Sucich said communication is even more key for the Tigers.
“We have to adjust to that and know if the ball is in our lane or if it’s in the seams,” she said. “We really just have to adjust and talk it out a lot more and trust each other and know who’s going to get that ball. With a libero, you kind of just knew she was there, and she was going to get that first ball.”
Haviland’s decision to rely on just six wasn’t out of necessity. Granite Falls has 26 players between its varsity, junior varsity and C-team rosters. But playing just six players on varsity has allowed the program to carry three full teams and give its younger and less-experienced players a chance to develop together and get regular playing time.
Haviland said a lot of players come into the program with minimal experience and that it’s more beneficial in the long term for the players to be gaining in-game experience while playing on the junior varsity or C-team than it is to be spending time on the varsity bench. The Tigers have six juniors on their junior varsity and seven freshmen on their C-team.
“You can see some raw talent, but they’re still so green,” Haviland said. “It is hard to make those moves to varsity. I see girls that have a ton of potential. I’m excited. In a year or two, I’m going to have some really good varsity players. They’re just not quite there.”
And allowing Granite Falls to try to develop its program through experience on its lower-level teams, are the six girls who have been ironwomen of sorts for this year’s team.