Yale Athletics

In 1998, the sport of indoor volleyball experienced an unprecedented change that would alter the game forever.

At a press conference about the 1998 volleyball world championships, then-President of the International Volleyball Federation, Ruben Acosta, introduced a new position to the sport: the libero, a specialized defensive player. Since the conception of the position, liberos have become not only some of the most integral players on the court but also some of the most exciting to watch.

“The libero is the second most important player on the court,” Yale associate head coach Kevin Laseau said. “The setter is kind of the quarterback, but if you can’t serve and pass then you’re not gonna win. And that’s the libero’s job.”

Although it took until 2002 for the libero to be integrated into NCAA play, it did not take long after that for the new position to affect the pace and outcomes of games. Designed to extend rallies and strengthen teams’ backlines, a scrappy and smart libero quickly became a coveted asset for college volleyball teams.

Throughout their time here, members of the Yale coaching staff have recognized the value liberos bring to a program. Just two years after liberos entered NCAA play, Yale’s roster already had three of them on the roster.

Liberos may be substituted for a backrow player at any time and as many times as a coach sees fit throughout a game. Moreover, they are not required to follow the same rotation requirements as their teammates. This freedom allows coaches to realize a libero’s full potential as a defensive weapon against powerful attacks. And despite what the defensive nature of the position might suggest, liberos can be used as offensive strategists as well.

“We try to have the libero look at the defense, see what’s available and call out shots for the hitter,” Laseau said. “It’s invaluable because if you get a good relationship between the libero and your hitter, it makes them extremely effective.”

This year, the Bulldogs’ backline includes some of the Ivy League’s top passers, including defending Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Kate Swanson ’19. During her recruiting process, Swanson was immediately recognized by Yale’s coaches for her hard work and tenacity. The San Diego–area native also possessed several other important attributes desired in a libero — an eagerness to talk on the court and a willingness to sacrifice her body to keep a ball alive.

“I love being able to call what parts of the court are open for the front row,” Swanson said. “There’s no better feeling than seeing a shot, calling it and having one of our hitters get a kill. [And] at the end of the day, the most important thing is having grit. It’s about going for every ball and being a scrappy player.”

Swanson took a leading role in the program early in her career, after libero Tori Shepard ’17 was sidelined with an injury. Rookie Swanson stepped up and finished the season averaging 3.76 digs per set. Swanson has been Yale’s starting libero ever since and has continued to be a valued leader and voice on the court. She was named captain for her senior season and is currently ranked second in the Ivy League in digs per set.

Libero Yurika Boyd ’21 feels lucky to have the opportunity to play and work alongside Swanson. Boyd, also a Southern California native, has turned to Swanson for guidance since first arriving at Yale. The pair quickly hit it off and built a strong friendship. Boyd said she admires Swanson for how often and effectively she communicates with hitters and for her unwavering resilience.

“She’s just such a presence on the court, and everyone trusts her 100 percent,” Boyd said. “I know she will play her heart out and do well no matter what. Everyone looks up to her and respects her, and we know that she’s just a really great leader for our team.”

In Boyd’s own volleyball career, which began when she was in just second grade, she was not always sure she would reach the collegiate level. But year after year, her love for the sport kept pushing her forward. Laseau identified Boyd’s passing technique as one of her greatest strengths, which he said reminds him of the way baseball infielders attack ground balls. Boyd plays the ball and does not let it play her, Laseau said, using a common “coachism” in baseball circles.

Despite how much she enjoys her position, Boyd admitted that it is not always easy. Because of the mental focus required to consistently produce effective passes from the backline, a libero’s composure is of the utmost importance. The best liberos are ones who can regroup after a mistake, keep their head in the right place and remain hungry for redemption on the next opportunity.

“It’s about moving forward,” Boyd said. “You can’t let one play keep you from doing your best. As long as you’re doing your best and putting it all out on the court, it’s going to work eventually.”

With a bulletproof backline at their disposal, the Bulldogs head into their last nonconference tournament this weekend at the University of Central Florida. And with four Floridians on the roster, the Elis also look forward to spending time with friends and family on the road trip, in addition to securing wins before their first round of Ivy League play.

The Bulldogs first match of the weekend will be Friday at 1 p.m. against Florida Gulf Coast.

Ellen Margaret Andrews | ellenmargaret.andrews@yale.edu