Volleyball: Hutcheson leads by example in unique position

The senior from Exeter is thriving in her first season as the Bulldogs’ starting libero

By Andrew Tomsky

FRESNO – The libero is a confusing position for those new to the sport of volleyball. The player wears a different jersey than her teammates – often matching the color of the opposing team, in fact.

Nobody, be they volleyball novices or aficionados, is really even sure how the word is pronounced. But no matter how you to say it (LEE-bare-oh, LUH-bare-oh, lee-BEH-ro, LEE-bro, and so on…) the role of the defensive specialist is a vital one in controlling the game.

In her first year as Fresno State’s starting libero, senior Jacqueline Hutcheson has filled the large shoes of departed senior Maggie Eppright, who served in the role for the majority of her four-year career and graduated averaging a program-record 3.90 digs per set while ranking second in team history with 1,788 total digs in her career.

“She was so consistent in everything she did and was always on top of her game,” Hutcheson said about Eppright. “Being a defensive specialist and then coming into a libero is totally different because you’re on the court the entire game. Just seeing that and now having the opportunity myself, I want to be like that and have people able to rely on me all the time.”

Despite not filling the libero role until the season, Hutcheson played in all but one match over her first three years serving as a defensive specialist and server. She has averaged better than two digs per set in her career and has been among the best servers in the Mountain West – in 2016 she led the league and ranked ninth in NCAA Div. I with 53 service aces.

With a literal translation from Italian as “free”, the libero wears a different color jersey to indicate that the player may come in and out at any time, free of counting as a substitution. The individual is restricted to playing on the back row and by rule is not allowed to attempt a block or attack on a ball above the top of the net. Offensive numbers are minimal, as Hutcheson has just eight kills in 377 sets played in her career.

“I think we’re the silent contributors in a way,” Hutcheson says. “A lot of people focus on the hitters and the big blockers but if you can’t play defense you can’t win games. It’s all about the setup and that’s what I thrive off of.”

Fresno State head coach Lauren Netherby-Sewell echoes that sentiment. “Serving, passing, and defense are absolutely essentials in winning matches,” she said. “They (liberos) don’t have a lot of responsibility, but the ones that they have are huge and they really stabilize our offense and our defense. That first ball contact is everything, so if you have a good libero who’s on the floor all the time that’s huge.”

The role of defensive specialist was one Hutcheson had to learn when she became a Bulldog.

“I was a setter my whole life so my freshman year (at Fresno State) was the first time I was a libero,” she said. “It’s completely different as you’re controlling the first ball instead of the second so it really depends on you to be good all the time. Laying out for balls get other people hyped, and when you pass a perfect ball and someone gets a kill you feel like you did that even though you just set them up for it.

This season Hutcheson ranks seventh in the Mountain West averaging 3.94 digs per set, a number that would tie for the fifth best single-season mark in program history and is more than Eppright averaged last year. She has had double-digit digs in all but two matches this year, including a career-high 22 in the season-opening win over Utah Valley, and is averaging 0.26 aces per set.

“Once Maggie graduated, the opportunity was there for Jacque to take over that role and she’s flourished,” Netherby-Sewell said. “She’s really surprised us and has been really solid. She’s done a good job not getting overwhelmed and now we’ll look for her to keep emerging as a leader on the court.”

Hutcheson has helped lead the team in her position and in mentoring the three other Bulldog defensive players on the roster, all of whom are newcomers this season and have seen significant court time.

“Jacque is a big part of this team,” junior Emily Dzubak said. “She’s a silent leader and her presence on the court is what keeps us in matches. Anything we ask she is always ready to help us.”

“Coming in as a freshman I look up to Jacque so much with how consistent she is,” Reagan Leonard added. “I want to play like her like she wanted to play like Maggie.”

It has been a challenging start to the season as 13 of the Bulldogs’ first 14 official matches of the year have been away from Fresno. The team has been on the road for five consecutive weeks, last playing on their home floor on Sept. 5. Hutcheson’s steady play has been a constant throughout the team’s early travel

“She’s able to bring her game to the table every single day,” Netherby-Sewell said. “Whether its practice or a game, she’s performing and behaving the same way every day and that’s something the other libs look up to a lot.”

Back at home this Thursday against the Utah State Aggies, the first of two back-to-back, home Mountain West matches, Hutcheson believes playing in front of the home crowd will help reenergize the team as it gets into conference play.

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