In sports, a year often makes a world of difference. A team can either change from wannabes to contenders (see last season’s Islanders and Patriots), or from contenders to wannabes (see Mets and Ravens). Teams can totally change philosophies due to player acquisitions or losses (see pre and post-Shaq Magic and pre and post-Kurt Warner Rams).
In the case of South Florida volleyball, this season will be a new experience, not because of team changes but because of changes in the entire sport.
This season, two rule changes were made to collegiate volleyball. The let serve is now allowed and a new position, the libero, was added.
The let serve allows a ball to remain playable if it remains inside the boundaries after it has hit the net on a serve.
This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage to a team. When the ball ricochets off the net, it is hard to judge and usually lands on the court. But it is tough for a team to harness this weapon because, “It is difficult to train someone to hit the net on purpose,” USF coach Nancy Mueller said.
Along with the libero position being added, substitutions were reduced from 18 to 12. The reason being, the libero position can substitute freely, thus the name libero, which is Italian for free.
“Before, we had 18 subs, but if you play a long game you’re probably going to use the 18 just subbing out the middle blocker for the defensive specialist,” setter Ale Domingos said. “And since the libero doesn’t count as a sub, we use 12 subs just for all the positions that you might need.”
The libero is strictly a back row player and cannot attack or set the ball with overhand finger action from above the attack zone. Also, she is required to wear a contrasting jersey from her teammates.
“I think it’s for the best,” Mueller said. “It helps to make the game a little more exciting because the ball is being kept in play a little more. I like the libero.”
The Bulls’ libero is senior Maryann Mooney, who has long been considered USF’s top defensive player.
“Maryann has been our best ball control kid,” Mueller said. “That position needs to have really good ball control. For her first two seasons, she’s been one of our best defenders as well as one of our best ball control kids, so I think she fits the bill nicely.”
Mooney played only three matches last year after injuring her ankle two weeks into the season. The injury forced her to miss the season and threatened to take away this year. She is still recovering from exploratory surgery during the off-season.
“Since my ankle injury last year, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play this year, so any position I could play without jumping was good,” Mooney said. “So it worked out perfectly.”
In 1999, Mooney tallied 412 digs for a 3.40 average, and she totals 779 for a 3.12 average. So far this season, she is third on the team with 92 digs and 2.63 average.
“There’s no doubt about her skills and her defense,” Domingos said. “I think she’s struggling a little bit because of her injury, but I think she took to the libero position very well, and she has been very helpful to us.”
The libero is changing the way the game is played with substitutions and stricter defense, but Mooney has not been changed by the position.
“There’s been a couple of things I go to do that I would normally do, like set the ball in front of the 10-foot line,” Mooney said.
“And I can’t do that with this position anymore, and (there’s) just a couple of (other) things that I had to adjust to, but for the most part it’s not anything too foreign.”
The position is also changing recruiting, with more teams recruiting players strictly for libero.
“It’s a position that you can recruit any sized player that you want to play that position. It helps with some of the smaller kids that are now able to get a scholarship,” Mueller said.
“Everybody recruits that big middle player, but they can’t walk and chew gum in the back row. They’re just not as coordinated.”
USF’s first libero recruit will be with the team next season.
“Not many universities are actually giving out scholarships for it, but it’s an upcoming position for someone that can actually specialize in it,” Mueller said. “It can make a difference between winning and losing.”
The Bulls will put Mooney and the libero position to work this weekend when they travel to the Western Michigan Tournament in Kalamazoo, Mich., where they will face Syracuse on Friday followed by Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Western Michigan on Saturday.
Oracle assistant sports editor Bryan Fazio covers volleyball and can be reached at email@example.com