Photo by Jeff Vorva
Evergreen Park native Zach Rothstein, left, and Fontbonne teammate Tony Pitaro hit the ground during a match against Marian University in Wisconsin recently.
This might be the worst job in sports.
OK, maybe rodeo clown and the poor people who have to clean up the huge brown apples at the horse racing track might have it worse. But it certainly is one of the least appreciated jobs.
It is being a libero on a volleyball team. The job is to be a defensive specialist who can come and go into matches an unlimited amount of time but is not allowed in the front row. It’s a job that requires a lot of guts with little glory in return. It gets little respect.
Here are my 10 reasons, in no particular order, on why being a libero…well…sucks:
-- You have to wear a different uniform top. Already you are set apart from the other players.
-- Because you are wearing a different uniform top, it’s easier for fans to spot your screw-ups.
-- No one knows how to even pronounce the darn position. It’s supposed to be lee-bah-row, which kind of sounds like Figaro. (I never thought I would get an opera reference into a volleyball column, but I digress.) Most people – including myself – call it a lib-bear-oh.
-- And no matter how you pronounce it, it will never be as cool as “outside hitter” or “middle blocker.’’ In fact, I can’t think of a goofier name in a sport with a ball. Now, if we’re talking rowing…
-- It’s been decades since liberos were added to volleyball, but to this day, I hear some fans saying “Why is that girl (or guy) wearing a different color uniform?”
-- You have to hit the ground hard – a lot. That causes plenty of injuries, especially the wrists and ribs.
-- When the ball gets by you, you look stupid.
-- When you make the greatest diving play in your life, it is almost forgotten quickly because play continues and one of two things will happen – your team will get the point or give up the point and that’s what the fans remember.
-- There are no sexy statistics for a libero to get. No kills. No attacks. No blocks. Digs-per-set is about as good as it gets and even that can’t tell you the difference between a very good libero and an excellent libero. It might just mean the other team is getting the ball past the blockers too much.
-- Very few kids playing in the early stages of their career say “Yep, I’m going to be a libero in volleyball!”
So, somebody has to do it.
And those who do it, love it.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Evergreen Park’s Zach Rothstein, a former Brother Rice standout who plays libero for NCAA Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis and after the regular season was ranked fifth in the nation with 3.31 digs per set and was the No. 2 freshman in the country with that stat.
“When you play hard all year, it’s fun to get some credit,” he said. “But my main goal was 15-11 (the team’s won-loss mark – just the second winning season in program history).
“I love playing defense, so I love playing libero,’’ added Rothstein, who pronounces it lib-bear-oh. “But the only reason I am playing libero is because I am not tall enough (5-foot-11) to play front row. I feel like I’m the runt of the group.’’
When Rothstein arrived at Brother Rice, he was also playing for the Chi-Town Volleyball Club and that’s when the seeds were planted that he was heading to the back row.
“At first I said ‘I don’t know—I kind of like hitting and blocking,’ ’’ he said. “Then I started seeing these kids with five or six inches on me jumping and I said ‘OK, I can take this back-row position.’ ’’
Even though he is digging being one of the top diggers in the country, he said it’s not the best way to judge a libero.
“The stat I saw that shows a true libero is grading serve-receive,’’ he said. “You are graded on how well you pass. A three is perfect to the setter. I think the coaches had me a 2.3 or 2.4 average. Serve-receive is a huge part of a libero’s deal. One kid could be crazy on defense and you call him a good libero but if he can’t pass…I think serve-receive is one of the hardest things to do mentally.’’
Even though his body goes through nightly punishment in practice and in matches, he is looking forward to three more years of it at the St. Louis school.
“Over the years I’ve grown to know that you don’t get some of the respect that you deserve – but what it really comes down to is playing for your team,” Rothstein said. “Liberos are not going to get all the glory in the world, but you still have to play to put your team in a position to win, even if it means people are not talking about your great plays.’’