If you have ever watched a volleyball match at any level, the chances are good that you have seen the libero. Unless you know about the sport of volleyball, odds are you have no idea what that is. Libero is the volleyball term for the defensive specialist, the player on the team that is wearing a different colored jersey than his or her teammates. The libero can substitute at any time in the match and does not count against the substitution limit of 18 per game.
The catch is that the defensive specialist is not allowed to play on the front line so it is generally one of the shorter players on the team that is good at digging the ball. For South Carolina that player is Paige Wheeler. Standing at 5-7 there is only one player on the roster shorter than Wheeler and one that is the same height. Wheeler may look like the proverbial girl next door off the court, but on the court she is a hard-nosed player that defends kill attempts and turns it to instant offense.
“She’s an athletic player,” head coach Scott Swanson said. “She’s not very big so her strength is in the back row. She’s a pretty good passer and she’s becoming a better defender. She’s the one that we want them to hit the ball to and the one we set up our block to have them hit at.”
Much like an offensive lineman in football, the defensive specialist usually goes unnoticed by most when things are going well. When a running back breaks off a 20-yard run he gets all the praise while the offensive lineman that created the hole gets little praise. However, when the quarterback gets sacked it is the offensive lineman that gets the blame. The same goes for the defensive specialist. When things are going well and the offense is functioning, the setters get the praise for setting up a kill and the hitters get credit for killing the ball. Meanwhile, the defensive specialist is often back there thinking to herself “I was the one that dug the speeding bullet the other team just hit at me.” Wheeler has no problem joining in on the cheering for her teammates, but knowing in her mind that she will get some credit in the film room for getting things started.
“I like getting excited for my teammates who are big hitters and get kills and stuff,” Wheeler said. “I just know that in the back of my head maybe I passed that ball well for them. The coaches and my teammates have helped me gain confidence in myself to be relentless on defense and go after everything.”
Having the job of defensive specialist is not an easy task. Not only are the expected to get in front of kill attempts from the opponent and stop it, but they are expected to get the ball to the setter at the same time to set up a kill attempt by your team with a pass to your setter. If the pass if off, the setter has to adjust and may not set up the hitter where she needs the ball to be, so the hitter has to adjust to still get off a good shot. All of that happens in seconds and is a snowball effect if the pass isn’t to that perfect spot. When the offense is off it is usually because the initial pass was off.
“That’s always the problem,” Swanson said. “If we don’t get a ball that’s high enough for our setters to get balanced under and get squared up to put our hitters in a good position, it’s all relative. When our hitters are getting a ball that’s too high, too low, off, or tight, there’s so many variables that people that don’t understand volleyball don’t see. The difference in a ball that’s a foot higher and a foot tighter and the setter doesn’t have to move, it’s really not that tough of a job to do if it’s a good pass. The job of a setter becomes really tough when the pass is off or the dig is too far away, and then the hitters have to make an adjustment. When we have everybody making adjustments versus nobody making adjustments and you have three people getting good touches, that’s when things go well. It’s a lot of pressure on the one that’s touching the ball first.”
Wheeler has done the job better than anyone else the last two seasons. Last season she was the only player on the team to play in every set and was the libero in all but three sets. She spent her freshman season learning from one of the best, Hannah Lawing, who finished her career third in program history with 1,334 digs. Wheeler is enjoying a career year this season, averaging 4.05 digs per set, just over half a dig per set below the school record of 4.61 that has stood since 1987. She is well above her career average in digs per set and is on pace to move into the top three in career digs per set if she can keep up her current pace. With 891 career digs Wheeler is well on pace to finish near the top of the list in career digs and she can potentially move into the top five in school history in digs in a season if she keeps up the current pace.
“We rely on her touching the ball the majority of the time she can get to it and putting our setter in a good position,” Swanson said. “We rely on that position heavily to make good first touches on the ball so we can run our offense.”