When Anja Perlebach ’07 steps onto the volleyball court, she knows she is being watched — closely. In fact, a special referee has eyes only for her.
Perlebach is a libero, a special defensive player on the women’s volleyball team, and as such, her moves are regulated by a “libero tracker,” who makes sure she does not jump, attack or set. While everyone else on the court rotates around her, the coach uses her unlimited libero substitutions to keep Perlebach, who wears a different color jersey from her teammates, in the back middle position.
The team is 14-7 so far and undefeated in six matches since Oct. 29. With a win today against Brown, the Bulldogs can clinch a share of the Ivy League Championship, and teammates said Perlebach’s performance will be critical for the team’s success.
“Anja plays a vocal role on the team,” captain Jana Freeman ’05 said. “She makes calls to the front row and tells the hitters where the openings are.”
One of the key players on the team and a leader on the court, Perlebach fields most serves and said she relishes the one-on-one aspect of the libero position.
“When the other girl’s serving at you, it’s like, who’s going to win?” she said, describing the anticipation.
Most of the time, Perlebach wins. Through Nov. 15, she has racked up 418 digs, breaking Yale’s single-season dig record, set in 1989 by Kristina Kliszewski ’93. Perlebach’s team-leading average of 5.57 digs per game ranks 20th nationally.
For Perlebach, every service and hit that comes over the net is a personal battle between her and the other girl who sent it. She said she loves frustrating opposing outside hitters with her persistence.
“It’s degrading for outside hitters when they keep hitting but they never get the kill,” she said.
Perlebach took a roundabout route to her specialized position. She began her volleyball career as an outside hitter in her hometown of Elkhorn, Neb., where volleyball was one of a few sports available to girls.
Perlebach said she remembers Friday nights when the town shut down to attend Elkhorn High School football games.
“It was a pretty small town, and we got a lot of attention,” she said. “Everyone knew you, and most people played sports.”
In her senior year, Perlebach led her team to its first state championship since 1978, and she earned All-American status as an outside hitter.
While many of her friends in the Nebraska volleyball community ended up with scholarships to play at Div. I schools, Perlebach’s height proved an impediment. Most outside hitters at Div. I schools are around 6’1″, while Perlebach is 5’10”. But she said her height and her academic interests helped her decide to attend Yale.
“I’ve always cared a lot about academics, and Yale is a place where I can also play volleyball,” she said.
Her height also makes her the ideal size for a libero.
As a libero, Perlebach’s duties include bumping serves to the setter, digging out incoming spikes, and making play calls to the front row. Her position requires excellent passing, a good sense of the game and an ability to read hitters. Perlebach has all of these skills and has played a crucial role in the Elis’ run for the Ivy League championship.
“I’ve always been a defensive player,” Perlebach said, speaking in her typically concise manner.
Freeman agreed, calling Perlebach the team’s primary passer and best defensive player.
Still, this year posed a challenge for Perlebach as she was forced to switch positions with the departure of defensive specialist Jessica Kronstadt ’04, assistant coach Kevin Laseau said.
“At the beginning of the season, she was more of an outside hitter playing defensively,” Laseau said. “Now, she’s actually a libero. She’s really grown into the position.”
One of the biggest differences between a libero and a defensive specialist is that a libero can substitute an unlimited number of times within a rotation. This enables Perlebach to spend more time on the court than a typical substitute, since she comes in to play defense for the middle blockers.
And while Perlebach has to refrain from jumping, attacking and setting, this does not stop her from diving, lunging or otherwise scrapping to keep the ball from hitting the ground.
“I get a little beat up,” she said nonchalantly. “But I wear kneepads, so I don’t get that many bruises.”
So when the Bulldogs take the court tonight against the Bears, expect to see this Nebraskan plaguing the opposition’s hitters with her grit and tenacity — and expect more than one pair of eyes to be focused on Perlebach.
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