Tan solid but has big shoes to fill at libero

The sophomore follows in the footsteps of some of Minnesota’s best.

by Mark Heise

The Minnesota volleyball team has had a rich tradition of a strong defensive core, led by a great libero.

And with Paula Gentil and Malama Peniata, the last few years haven’t been any different. Nor should anyone expect a change.

Sophomore libero Christine Tan’s strong play has vaulted her into the leadership role a little earlier than expected, but coach Mike Hebert said the sophomore’s play is on the same level as what fans have been treated to seeing since 2002.

“In my opinion, she’s right there with the other two in terms of her overall grasp of the game defensively,” he said.

As a freshman out of Palm Harbor, Fla. last year, Tan won the starting position as a defensive specialist job with impressive quickness and athleticism.

“When she came here as a freshman, we weren’t sure how good she was going to be,” Hebert said. “But as we got to watch her in last year and again this spring, it was pretty clear that she was the best candidate for the libero position.”

Tan won the position after playing middle back last season and excelling in the role. And although the libero is usually placed on the left side of the court, Hebert said he decided to keep Tan in the middle this year to allow the young player a better comfort level.

And while the position change won’t allow Tan the same amount of digging opportunities, keeping her from reaching records like Gentil’s 47 digs in a single match at the left-back position, Hebert says the middle back position could be considered a tougher spot.

“At middle back, you have to run down a lot of balls, and the reads are a lot more difficult,” he said. “The digs may not be as dramatic, but there are still plenty of challenges.”

And Tan has met those challenges so far this season. The libero leads the team with 4.43 digs per game this season, and has led the way directing traffic in the back row. Tan attributed this to holding her position at middle back.

“I felt really comfortable stepping into that role,” she said. “I feel like I can see the court better and that way I can direct the defense a little better than I would have been able to do from the left-back position.”

But Tan didn’t give all the credit to keeping her old position. As a freshman, Tan was able to watch Peniata rack up 532 digs, while leading the team in such a way that Hebert put her in a class of her own.

“(Peniata) was in a league of her own in that regard,” he said. “She was probably the best traffic cop and communicator that I’ve ever coached. But Tan is right behind her and getting better each week.”

Tan said learning from Peniata for a season played a role in her being prepared to take on this leadership role early in her career.

“To me, Marci always led by example,” she said. “She was a consistent player and was always there to help with the play. Just by watching her play and being able to play around her taught me a lot about the mental part of the game.”

There is no doubt that Tan has some big shoes to fill, but junior defensive specialist Kelly Fallon said the libero’s work ethic has the team behind her.

“She’s such a hard worker, you notice that right away,” Fallon said. “She’s always shagging for a ball and always working her butt off to make a pass. She’s an energizer on the court and that’s what sets her apart from the pack.”