Libero position helps U to more wins

by Jeff Barthel

Flying around the court. Scraping for digs. Trying to save the ball from bouncing to keep the play alive. After a 0-4 start for Minnesota’s volleyball team, this was the effort needed to get onto the winning track this season.

Now 2-4, much of the team’s newfound success has come from defensive player Paula Gentil and the importance of a new position she’s playing, the libero position – brought into NCAA play in 2002.

Gentil explains this position: “The libero is free to do whatever you have to do to get (the volleyball) to the setter.”

Coach Mike Hebert knows how important this position can be to a team. “That position is major, major important,” Hebert said. “They’re on the court between 80 to 85 percent of the time.”

The position has been around in International play for a few years, but has only been seen one year at the college level.

The official Web site of NCAA volleyball goes into detail on the position. According to NCAA rules, regulations for the position include: exclusive play in the back row, inability to serve and not being allowed to block or attempt to block.

It is not much of a position in terms of scoring, but Gentil does not seem to mind.

The 5-foot-9 Brazilian contributes the way she likes to – through her defense. Gentil has been able to record an impressive 687 digs so far in her Minnesota career.

She’s only 604 away from tying the Gophers career record of 1,291 – set in 1989 by Shannon Oesterling. Gentil amassed a career-high 29 digs two weeks ago against Louisville.

But Gentil does not only play libero. She also is a key player in terms of teamwork. “She passes all the balls she can, she digs everything,” Hebert said. “She’s flying all over the court.”

The always-hustling sophomore has played outside hitter her whole life before coming to Minnesota. After just one year at libero, she was named third team All-American in the position.

Hebert knew what he was getting when he recruited her. When asked by some fellow Big Ten coaches about his 2002 recruiting class, “I said we recruited one major impact player,” Hebert said. “They giggled because this was before the libero position was made official.”

Hebert turned out to be right. In Gentil, he found a player who does whatever it takes to help the team.

Her next chance to help the Gophers comes this weekend as the team packs its bags for Florida.

Minnesota squares off against Xavier (5-1) today. The Gophers would like to deal the Musketeers a loss, which could possibly set up a Saturday afternoon tilt with No. 3 Florida.

The Gators (6-1) are led by one of the nation’s top players, Aury Cruz. The senior outside hitter leads the Gators’ attack, averaging 4.64 kills and 3.36 digs per game.

If all goes as planned, Hebert, Gentil and the rest of the Gophers hope to see Cruz and the Gators in action at the tournament championship.