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SC defensive specialists stand out — as friends and competitors

by on October 04, 2018 7:40 AM

STATE COLLEGE — The life of a volleyball defensive specialist doesn’t often result in a lot of glory or draw huge cheers during matches. Most of their work is done in near-anonymity.

Aside from the extremely rare “kick save,” or maybe a diving pancake or deflecting a rocket spike, their work is done somewhat quietly. What they do also is necessary so teammates can draw those “Oooos” and “Ahhhs.” Much like a long snapper in football, their work is noticed more when something goes wrong.

“(Our skin) is pretty thick, I think,” State College senior Erin Lutz said. “Even when it’s not just us with the passing, I feel like we still get a lot of the heat like from everyone. It’s kind of rough being back there.”

Fellow senior Katie Finlan, a back-row contributor to the varsity since her freshman season, has a similar feeling if teammates can’t do their jobs well if she and Erin are not near perfect.

“We get a lot of heat from our team when our passing isn’t good,” Finlan said. “(It means) nobody else can run plays or get swings. We take a lot of heat for that, and we don’t really get much glory.”

Such is the life in the back-row — the defensive specialists and libero who are brought in as substitutes for the big front-row hitters as better passers. Their main job is to be the first contact on the ball, receiving serves or digging up spikes from the opposition. It can be a tough task when the ball is hit hard or there is a lot of movement on a serve (like a curve ball, slider or knuckleball in baseball). They have to get under the ball with their arms at just the right angle (the angle of reflection for those who know their geometry) to get the ball to the setter in the perfect spot. Ideally, that gives the setter the most options to get a spike from the big hitters. The more choices for the setter, the tougher it is for the opposition to block and defend.

It’s so much easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean the expectations aren’t high, especially for the top teams.

“Every coach that coaches volleyball, that knows how to win, it’s serve and pass,” Lady Little Lions coach Chad Weight said. “If you can serve and pass, you at least can give yourself a chance.”

Finlan and Lutz take care of those duties pretty well. They are in their second season of sharing or battling each other (depending on your point of view) for the starting libero spot.

“In practice I’d say that it’s more of a competition,” Finlan said. “We’re obviously pushing each other all the time. We always try to get the same spot on the court whenever we’re playing 6-on-6. In games it’s easier because the positions are already there and we’re cheering each other on. At that point it’s just whatever’s best for the team.”

Lutz, a three-year varsity player, has delivered 141 digs and 23 aces this season, and has been the primary libero. Finlan, hampered by an ankle injury for most of September, has 30 digs and 13 aces. Finlan actually has been a bit of an injury magnet, with more turned ankles in her past along with a concussion last season.

The girls also are good friends as they compete for the same job. They have four classes together, and they also are side-by-side heading to class, doing homework, eating lunch, at football games, heading to movies and eating out.

Their strong bond makes the position battle easier, and also provides someone who knows exactly how it feels when there are struggles.

“It doesn’t create drama,” Weight said of the pair’s relationship. “Let’s face it: When you have people competing, when they’re that close, that can create a little bit of drama. But these kids have a really good understanding of their roles, not only their roles but others’ roles too.”

Who has the upper hand for the starting libero position also depends on the top priority for the position. As Weight sees it, Lutz is a slightly more accurate passer “by a smidge” and Finlan, perhaps assisted by some soccer in her past, covers a little more of the court by that same “smidge.”

“My feet react quicker than my mind does,” said Finlan, who, like Lutz, is hearing from college coaches and hopes to play at the next level.

However, those skills don’t often show up on the highlight reels — “It’s really the hitters that get the glory,” Lutz said — when teammates aren’t getting good swings, Lutz and Finlan hear about it. There is some sympathy from outside hitters, who usually have passing duties as well, but others are less understanding.

“When the passing is bad, it’s usually them and us that are passing bad,” Lutz said, adding the most important part to their mental game when dealing with those struggles is to not dwell on them.

“Coach calls it ‘selective amnesia’ — forget the bad plays, remember the good plays,” Lutz said.

With the Little Lions ranked fourth in the state in Class 4A and hoping for a deep run in the state tournament, good passing can take them a long way.

“We’re pretty confident in ourselves,” Lutz said, “but we know we have a lot of work to do, a lot of competition, and we have to just keep going.”


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