The unsung heroes of the Steamboat volleyball team |

The unsung heroes of the Steamboat volleyball team

Steamboat Springs senior Kari Saunders, left, and junior Lauren Ehrlich slap hands before switching positions on a serve against Rifle on Saturday, Oct. 13. (Photo by Leah Vann)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The libero position is one that’s the most noticeable by jersey but the least recognized by play.

In fact, the position didn’t even exist in indoor volleyball until 1999.

Most people are also confused on how to pronounce the name of the position. Is it, “Lib-air-oh” or, “lee-bur-oh?”

“I think a lot of people when they come to watch volleyball, they don’t know that much about the game,” Steamboat Springs High School Head Coach Wendy Hall said. “And at first glance, they have a tendency to gravitate towards watching the net players and the hitters and the blockers. I think, for sure, the defensive specialists get overlooked.”

The libero is the captain of the defense and can substitute for anyone on the back row without counting as a formal substitution on the scoresheet. Usually, they come in when a middle blocker has rotated to the back row.

It’s a position designated and maintained in every match. The libero can never play front row, or even attack the ball above the height of the net. This is arguably why the libero may not be the tallest on the team.

The Sailor’s libero is Katelyn Kline, and she gets the second most touches on a volleyball each match, but to the untrained eye, it’s unnoticed.

“She’s touching the ball almost as much as the setter does,” Hall said. “I think that you can never have a really good team without a really good libero. It’s a really critical position to have somebody who is really good, somebody who is consistent and willing to get on the floor.”

Kline naturally gravitated towards the position according to her strengths. She tried outside hitter once in middle school. It’s laughable to her.

“That didn’t go very well.” Kline said.

Senior libero Katelyn Kline takes the ball off a serve against Palisade on Friday, Oct. 12 at Steamboat Springs High School. (Photo by Leah Vann)

And, even though back row defense doesn’t have the final say on every point, there’s something about the scrappiness of it, especially in competitive matches like Palisade on Friday, Oct. 12.

Kline’s signature skill is getting those deep balls in the wing areas of the court. A lot of times, she’s diving for it with one arm, and it just works.

“I think that’s the best way to play it,” Kline said. “You don’t even start thinking about it. It’s just reflex. It goes so quick, you don’t even know what’s happening.”

But, there’s more thought that goes into back row defense than just sacrificing your body for the ball. At the high school and collegiate levels, a libero needs to be able to read the opposing hitter’s posture, shoulder and swing position to determine where the ball is going, before it happens.

If they’re lucky, the ball will brush the fingertips of the front row blockers, slowing down its pace toward the floor.

“It takes a lot of intelligence to read things and adjust before they happen,” Hall said. “So, I think we’re pretty darn blessed with really good back court players.”

Defensive specialists

Junior Lauren Ehrlich and Kari Saunders battle alongside Kline. Each present a different skill set.

“Lauren is just lightning fast,” Hall said. “The better she gets at reading things, the better she is going to be. I hope she is ready to fill that libero role next year. It’s her progression.”

Ehrlich also has a love for the exhilaration of the back row, but it helps when she plays alongside someone she trusts.

“I got most of my love for back row from Katelyn. That relationship just formed,” Ehrlich said. “I was an all-around player, outside, back row last year and freshman year. But, I like that you get the power to initiate the play. You make a good pass. They make a good kill.”

Saunders remains one of the most versatile players on the team and can go anywhere on the court. She’s played setter and right side hitter this year in addition to back row.

“Kari is like my slash,” Hall said. “She’s so versatile. When we were down in Glenwood, she played front row opposite because Maddie had SAT testing.”

Since defense isn’t the most glorified position on the court, growing up, most girls want to be hitters until they gravitate towards their strengths. At Steamboat Springs, there’s been a steady amount of girls who specialize in defense.

Both Ehrlich and Kline were on junior varsity last year waiting their turn.

“They probably were ready for varsity — especially Katelyn,” Hall said. “But, I had several senior defensive specialists. So, we kept her down on JV for an extra year so she would maximize her playing time.”

The transition to varsity was smooth, also, since Kline and Ehrlich played club and attended team camps during the summer.

This was a unique summer of training for the Sailors since they were waiting on their gym to be resurfaced. But, it led to what the defense looks like now.

The progression

Senior middle blocker Sarah Heckel plays the unsung hero of the front row as the middle blocker who comes in after senior Avery Harrington.

“Sarah’s main role is defensive. She’s a really good blocker, and she continues to get better,” Hall said. “Middle blockers have to be really smart. They need to be able to see things.”

Middle blockers have to block on both right and left sides. To do that, they have to read where the set might go but also where that hitter likes to swing.

Steamboat Springs senior Sarah Heckel leaps for a solo block against Rifle on Saturday, Oct. 13.

Heckel, besides her natural 5-feet-11-inch stature, knew that she needed to improve her jumping to nail a fierce blocking game.

“I’ve grown a lot through these volleyball years — grew three shoe sizes in a year,” Heckel said. “I’ve found the best way to train for blocking is to go to the sand courts from 6 to 8 every Monday and Wednesday.”

That was in addition to the Sailors’ sand training this summer when the volleyball court was being resurfaced.

“Five weeks we were down in the sand courts playing,” Hall said. “It’s a nice thing to do in the summer just for a change of scenery, and also, it’s a little bit easier on their body. Turns out, when they get back in the gym, it’s really good training for us.

“It was something we were forced to do because the gym was being redone, but I think I’m going to keep it.”

Sand cushions the fall and also makes it harder to move. That makes the transition to the court a little easier.

“A really great dig is just as big a momentum changer as a huge kill or a huge block,” Hall said. “I can tell you, I’ve never had a really successful team without that component as part of the mix.”

To reach Leah Vann, call 970-871-4253, email or follow her on Twitter @LVann_Sports.

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