Volleyball's national championship could come down to the diggers

With a fearless attitude, junior Cat McCoy averages 3.96 digs per set for the Longhorns, who play Nebraska in Thursday's nightcap. Courtesy Texas

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nebraska's Justine Wong-Orantes prefers bananas smashed between her pancakes, and Stanford's Morgan Hentz is all about the pancakes with chocolate chips. Texas' Cat McCoy is partial to the sweet kind that taste like cinnamon rolls. Nothing fancy for Minnesota's Dalianliz Rosado -- just hot syrup, thank you.

The four -- all starting liberos for the teams in volleyball's final four, which will be played Thursday at Ohio State's Nationwide Arena -- dig talking about flapjacks for breakfast. Mention the pancake in volleyball, and they give a look.

Hentz shivers thinking about the floor burn that comes with that SportsCenter highlight when a player dives and slides her hand flat to the ground to prevent an accelerating ball from ending the point.

"That's only an emergency skill, when you make the wrong read," Hentz said.

That doesn't happen much with any of these players because volleyball's premier defensive specialists are simply that good at what has evolved into one of the most important roles in the sport. In fact, after the setter position, Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, whose team fell to Texas in the regional final, prioritizes libero second.

"It's the position you probably have to be the most mentally tough to play," she said. "We always say if we can break down a libero, it will break the team."

It's pretty cool when 5-foot-6 can counter 6-foot-1.

"Sometimes you think you have your shot, and they dig it like it's nothing," said Minnesota's Sarah Wilhite, the espnW player of the year.

Volleyball used to be a game reserved for the big kids with the heavy arms. Nobody said the word LEE-bah-ro or Luh-BARE-oh -- take your pick -- before it was introduced internationally in 1998.

Along with rally scoring, the libero position was added to the college game in 2002, and that led to players in darker jerseys becoming fixtures on the floor. That's because unlike every other player on the court, liberos do not rotate in and out. They regularly play the entire game.

Before the rules change, a player such as 5-foot-6 Wong-Orantes, named an AVCA first-team All-American on Wednesday, would have been overlooked. Instead, she turned down Hawai'i in favor of playing for the Big Red at Nebraska.

"It changed the women's game. It changed the men's games. It made it so much more exciting because of the rallies," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "We can now just hit rockets, and the libero adds to the ability to continue the rally. There's two quarterbacks on the court instead of one."

The setter runs the offense in the traditional sense, but the libero does more than prevent big guns such as Wilhite and Nebraska's Kadie Rolfzen from amassing kills.

The best liberos pass with the precision of Tom Brady. They put their teams back into system. They are thinkers who can read an opposing hitter's tendencies so well that a defensive play can actually become an offensive one.

In fact, credit Wong-Orantes for Nebraska's still being in the hunt for a second straight NCAA title. The Cornhuskers trailed Penn State 0-2 and were tied at 24-24 in the third set of the Sweet 16 last weekend when Wong-Orantes' dig extended the point. Instead of a Simone Lee kill, the senior's read on the ball allowed her to set up Mikaela Foecke for a Nebraska point.

Rather than being match point down for a third time, the Cornhuskers were set point up. It was the start of the epic comeback that led to this final four.

"Honestly, beach [volleyball] has helped me a ton," said Wong-Orantes, a California native who became the Cornhuskers' all-time leader in digs this season. "I played that probably for a decade. Beach prepared me in ways I never would imagine. For beach, you have to do all these skills, and that really benefited me."

Diving on sand -- well, that's one thing. The grains are far more forgiving on the body than Sport Court, a softer surface that cushions the body somewhat from the physical toll liberos endure. Fresh Sport Court laid Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena is something Hentz is thankful for.

"It makes it easier to slide," she said.

Knees and elbows take a beating, of course, no matter the surface. Hips and thighs are sore afterward too. Burns and bruises are just a given for players who typically sacrifice their bodies recklessly.

"The very first play of our first practice back in August, [Hentz] dug a ball that the rest of the people went, 'Oh, my gosh. She's going to try harder than the rest of us on every play, and we're going to have to change,'" Dunning said. "She has done it every drill of every practice since then and every game. That attitude she brings is just marvelous."

Among the four liberos in the final four, McCoy is the only one who came into college having spent substantial time at the spot. Wong-Orantes was a setter prior to Nebraska; Hentz and Rosado were outside hitters.

"I've played it since I was 11," McCoy said. "I love going for balls and having that fearless attitude. That's just a libero's mentality."