Perfecting the pass: Steamboat’s Maddie Labor embraces defensive role
Steamboat Springs — The Steamboat Springs High School volleyball team grades the passes its players make, and a pass can receive one of four grades.
A bad pass — one that flies off and falls down for a point — gets a zero.
A pass that can be reached by a setter or another teammate but that requires some serious scrambling is assigned a “1,” while a pass that requires a setter to move but allows the time for some flexibility in relaying the pass to a hitter draws a “2.”
The “3” pass is the goal, however, a perfectly received serve bumped up to a setter who barely has to move and who can set the ball to any of the team’s three big hitters.
The “3” pass is what drives Steamboat Springs junior libero Maddie Labor.
It didn’t exactly take any convincing for Labor to agree to be the libero for the Sailors volleyball team, which plays Saturday in the regional volleyball tournament in Pueblo.
It definitely took some thought, though.
That Labor broke into the Sailors’ varsity lineup last year as a sophomore is a testament to how good of a hitter she can be. She’s not tall, but she has a solid vertical and a powerful swing, and a year ago she was a consistent, though not dominating presence on the outside.
That coach Wendy Hall thought to move Labor from that role this season — with Labor’s support — speaks to her potential.
“She is exceptionally talented, as good of a passer as I’ve ever coached, and I’ve coached some good ones,” Hall said. “She has some sort of gift in there that you can’t teach. She’s had it since the day she entered the program, and it’s gotten a little better and a little better. She made a huge jump this year.”
It wasn’t a decision Labor took lightly.
It made sense in a lot of ways. She’s 5-foot-7, and she wants to play volleyball in college as much as she wants to do anything. She’s not looking at safe or small options for continuing her education and career, either. She attended a pair of camps at Colorado State University this summer and fell in love with the Rams program.
That squad is ranked No. 14 in the nation with a 22-1 record.
The other school that’s shown interest is Columbia, the New York Ivy League institution.
But big-time volleyball programs don’t plug 5-foot-7 players in as hitters, so for Labor to realize those dreams, moving to libero was more of a “when” rather than “if” situation.
“College as a big factor,” Labor said. “I knew if I focused on it, I would be in a better position for coaches to look at me instead of them trying to imagine, ‘OK, she’s an outside hitter, but what else can she do?’”
Against the wall
Liberos often get about as much appreciation as a football team’s offensive line. The quarterback and coach certainly appreciate and understand how important a good lineman is, and their parents are plenty proud. The casual fan, however, easily can overlook a lineman’s contributions.
As the libero, Labor is restricted to playing in the back row for her team and can’t attack with the ball. She’s in charge of the defense and takes the vast majority of the opposing team’s serves.
She has accumulated big-time stats in the role that doesn’t stand out the way 15 kills in a match might. She converts 95 percent of her passes, 650 of 687 this season.
She does it well, too, averaging 2.39 points per pass, well above the adequate “2” pass and including plenty of the treasured “3” passes.
That doesn’t just happen.
“It’s very complex, and it’s the most difficult skill to master,” Hall said. “Hitting and blocking are up there, but passing a serve is the hardest skill to master.”
Labor relished the idea of playing again this season as a hitter. There’s something about laying into a perfect set that’s hard to let go of, she explained. But when she was moved to libero, she embraced the change.
The key is reading the ball and the hitter.
If the serve has backspin, it will fall short. If it’s a float serve, it will jitter through the air. It’s important to keep an eye on it, to get under it and to control it.
“I try to watch the ball and pick up whatever information it’s giving me,” Labor said. “It’s a skill that’s acquired not through teaching or watching video but through actually doing it all the time.
“You have to be fearless, fearless and selfless.”
She hit up the camp in Fort Collins and another in Madison, Wisconsin, but most of the work came by herself.
She spent her days on the high school track with a volleyball. There’s a tall wooden wall in one corner of the complex, and between running workouts, for hour after hour, Labor practiced her serve, her receive and her passing.
“I was on the verge of tears a lot of days, saying, ‘I don’t want to do this. I just want to stay at home. I want to eat food, watch TV,’” she said. “But I just got myself up and said, ‘If you want to play at the next level, if you want to help make this team great, you have to put in those extra hours.’”
Good to great
She’s helped make this team very good, and on Saturday the squad goes for great. Steamboat, the overall No. 15 seed in the state, begins play in its three-team regional at about 11 a.m. against Longmont, the No. 27 team. The Sailors then square off against the regional host, No. 10 Pueblo West.
Pueblo West dominated its conference and only has lost against elite Class 4A teams and strong Class 5A teams.
Labor and the Sailors hope to match those squads and win the round-robin.
No doubt, Labor will be in the middle of it, a rock solid libero that’s helped solidify Steamboat this season.
“It’s a tough position. You have to learn to throw yourself on the ground for a ball even though you might not get it,” she said. “I have so many bruises. My body is beyond bruising, but once you get that one ball up that no one thought was possible, you realize, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’”
If Steamboat can advance, it will move on to the state tournament, which will consist of 12 teams divided into four more three-team pods.
Playing that deep in the season would make this the most successful Steamboat volleyball season in more than a decade.
The Sailors hope to live that dream, and they hope to do it one perfect “3” pass at a time.
“It’s been one of the craziest, most energetic seasons I’ve ever had,” Labor said. “I don’t want it to end.”
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