‘Digging’ the new position

Olivia Mathieu ranks first for digs in the Little East Conference

soren frantz / photo editor

Matt Holderman

Equinox staff

When people think of liberos in volleyball, one of the first details that might come to mind is a typical libero’s height. In volleyball, liberos are normally shorter than the rest of their teammates because it is their job to get “digs,” which often requires diving to the floor to hit the ball before it lands. Therefore, it makes sense to have shorter players be the liberos, as they are naturally the closest to the floor.

This is the case for liberos on most volleyball teams. But Olivia Mathieu, the libero for the 2019 Keene State Women’s Volleyball team, does not match that stereotype.

Standing at six feet tall, Mathieu is, quite literally, head and shoulders above the rest. She ranks first among players in the Little East Conference this year for digs and digs per set, and ranks 41st overall in the country for digs per set in NCAA Division III volleyball competition. For the top 150 players with the most digs in the country, Mathieu is the tallest; and the next tallest player is still two inches shorter than her.

“I think I like having the height,” Mathieu said. “It kind of provides that shock factor. It’s funny in warmups when players on the other teams see me put on that libero jersey. People don’t see it coming.”

The plan to make the six-foot star Keene State’s new libero originated all the way back at the end of last season, when then-libero Riley Bunker played in her final games as an Owl. Bunker, who was only 4’11”, finished her career at Keene State as the Owls’ all-time leader in digs, with over 2,000 digs in her four years on the team. In anticipation of Bunker graduating, Bob Weiner, the volleyball team’s head coach, needed to find somebody to fill Bunker’s position.

“We thought about it at the end of the season,” Coach Weiner said. “We wanted to see if we could bring a libero in, but none committed here. By the time spring ball came around, we thought of Olivia and decided to give it a try.”

And that was the best decision Coach Weiner could have made.

“We knew immediately in the spring that it was going to work,” said Weiner. “There’s two things involved. One, she’s the best serve receiver we have. She’s even a better receiver than Riley [Bunker] was, and she was our greatest libero ever.”

“The idea was kind of mutual,” Mathieu said. “We always joked about it, making me libero, but then we actually started talking about it and when we tried it out we realized it was a realistic possibility.”

Mathieu is now in her senior year at Keene State College, and she has spent all four of her years as an Owl playing for the women’s volleyball team. However, in her first three seasons with the team, she played in a more offensive position. Therefore, when she was officially named the team’s libero for her final season, she knew she was going to have to change the way she played.

“It was a challenge at first,” Mathieu said. “It was a big adjustment; I’d been playing the same position for years.”

When Mathieu’s teammates heard the news of her being moved to libero, they too knew that it was going to be a major change for both Mathieu and for the team itself.

“When coach [Weiner] told me the idea, I kind of looked at him kind of funny,” said Emilyann Ashford, a sophomore middle blocker on the team. “But he showed me the stats, and it seemed like it would fit. So I figured he knew best.”

Now, with 350 digs through 18 matches so far this season, Mathieu has more than gotten used to the change. She has nearly 70 digs more than any other player in the conference, with Plymouth State’s Alisha Flanagan being next best at 283. Additionally, Mathieu has been named the Little East Conference Defensive Player of the Week in volleyball three times this season.

“I didn’t know how this season would go,” Mathieu said. “But I hope to keep it up, and of course would love to win the LEC championship.”

For your typical, short libero, one might say, “No height? No problem!” But for Olivia Mathieu, it’s all the height, all the better.

Matt Holderman can be contacted

at mholderman@kscequinox.com