NIU volleyball looks to fill hole left by libero

By Katie Leb

For a moment, it looked like Maddie Hughes was still on the NIU volleyball team. Walking into the Campus Recreation Center for the first spring tournament on March 26, the No. 9 grey libero jersey was out on the court making digs. But it was not Hughes in the jersey anymore; it was Sue Hayes.

NIU volleyball is working on filling the hole left by Hughes, who was a two-time All-MAC selection and the 2009 MAC Defensive Player of the Year. The four-year libero graduates from NIU ranking second all-time in digs (2,226).

“What we lose in Maddie is experience and leadership,” said head coach Ray Gooden. “What we gain is new styles. I’m not saying they are better; they’re new.”

This spring, both Hayes and Justine Schepler have been wearing the special jersey, working with, as well as against, each other to become the defensive leader.

“I think we help each other out,” Schepler said. “It’s good competition. It’s always good to have someone there to compete with. That way you do your best.”

Gooden said sophomore Amber Walker may also be in the mix for the position, as well as incoming freshmen Cheyenne Dawson and Haley Norris.

For now, both Hayes and Schepler are remembering what Hughes told them about the responsibility of the libero position.

“She told me to take control,” Hayes said of Hughes. “As much as a lot of times you can’t hit for the hitters, you can be their eyes on the court. She also told me, with attitude, to think you can get every ball up.”

While it is still spring, and the team is getting back into the rhythm of the game, Gooden said he was pleased with Hayes and Schepler stepping into their potential role. Neither player had been consistent in the position or battled ahead of the other. But Gooden was pleased that their passing did not cause offensive “hiccups.”

“They are going to battle,” Gooden said. “They both had shining moments [in the first tournament]. At times, Justine can be a better defender than Sue, and Sue can be a better passer than Justine. Sometimes their roles reverse.”

Schepler said she is trying to emulate Hughes’ ability to help her teammates by not being in the forefront.

“She was really good about always giving effort and being a non-factor, meaning she was in the background,” Schepler said. “As libero, you really shouldn’t be seen even though you’re wearing the other colored jersey. Your passes should just always be on.”

Last season both Hayes and Schepler saw action in the back row, but the freshman Schepler came into play more often for her serving abilities, racking up 12 aces and a .959 reception percentage. She also dug 85 balls in the 110 sets she appeared in.

Hayes saw more time on the court, playing in 123 sets, while starting 31 matches. The sophomore also came away with 16 service aces, a .952 reception percentage and 220 digs. Both players will have to step up to catch Hughes’ 597 dig performance from the senior’s final season.

“I told everybody these [spring] weeks we have opportunities,” Gooden said. “It’s yours to take advantage of.”