Katie Forsythe is in her fourth season as Loyola volleyball’s libero, so she knows how it’s done at her sport’s most demanding defensive position.
The 5-foot-7 Perry, Ohio, native entered the 2021 season third all time in NCAA Division I digs per set, and she’s currently fourth in the nation this year (5.80) in that statistic for a 14-5, off-and-running Greyhound team.
A “dig” in volleyball is the first contact defensively (other than a block or tip) when the ball comes across the net from an attacker.
“It’s about knowing the angle and the platform,” Forsythe said about the art of the dig. “Because when the ball is hit at you, it’s coming really fast.”
How fast? Forsythe says teammates’ spikes have been clocked upwards of 50 mph on a JUGS gun in practice. Spikes in men’s volleyball can reach 80 mph. Why would anyone knowingly put their body in front of that and create a human “platform” of hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, chest, whatever — to stop it?
“You need someone with an incredible tenacity and aggressiveness to her to go after everything,” said Towson assistant coach Megan Shifflett Bachmann, who specializes in libero and defensive play for the Tigers, also off to a fast start at 17-3 this season.
Shifflett Bachman played on three-straight national championship teams at Penn State from 2008-2010 as a defensive dynamo, and has coached at Navy, at Western Oregon, in England and at camps and for clubs since graduating in 2012. In essence, she has a doctorate in Digology and defense in volleyball.
“It takes some inherent ability to read the game, read hitters and their approach — how is their body facing? The way their arm is facing — to make split-second decisions on the ball,” she said of playing defense at the highest level.
And it seems like the greater-Baltimore area is charmed with how many of these defensive gems reside within a short distance of one another. Besides Forsythe, a senior at Loyola, Coppin State has junior Ashley Roman, 28th in the latest national stats with 4.89 digs per set. Maryland boasts freshman Ashley Gomillion, 43rd at 4.76. UMBC senior Loren Teter is 32nd nationally with 319 total digs.
Shifflett Bachman is tutoring junior Rachel Hess at Towson. Hess was ranked in the top 20 in digs numbers a week ago but her team is so good at blocking (32nd in the country with 2.53 per set), Hess hasn’t had as many chances lately.
If your tall front-liners are blocking the ball at the net, liberos have fewer opportunities to dive, defend and dig (with apologies to the, ahem, sports movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”).
Hess, who has more digs than the next two Tigers combined, said studying tendencies, knowing opponents and being fast on your feet and fleet of forethought are the keys to the position and being the ringleader of a top defense.
“You have to be fast but disciplined to know positioning,” said the Breiningsville, Pa., product. “We set up our defense depending on the other team, knowing scouting reports on each hitter. You play the percentages based on what you’ve studied teams doing [on attack]. It’s more mind than body.”
That’s a good thing because few athletes sacrifice their bodies like volleyball defenders. By midseason, many are a collection of bruises. Hess’ bumps and bruises go beyond the court. She transferred to Towson after La Salle cut volleyball in 2020, a real blow to her.
“I loved La Salle, but I didn’t want to give up volleyball,” she said. “It was unfortunate being in the transfer portal at the start of my volleyball career, but Towson reached out and I talked to [head coach Don Metil and assistant Terry Hutchinson] a bit. I ended up visiting here and thought it was a really good fit.”
Hess transferred in the spring of 2021 and saw some action in the unusual COVID-caused spring campaign. She is now entrenched as a starter, and like every libero, has a story about diving, barely getting a hand under a ball to save it or running across court, perhaps way off the court to save a wayward volley.
“My favorite dig is when I have to run really far for one,” said Hess, who hit balls against her house’s brick wall to practice while locked down by the pandemic last year. “Or when someone dinks it over the net and you pick it up just before it hits, extending and diving.”
Sometimes you don’t have to extend and dive.
Forsythe, borrowing another “Dodgeball” premise, should have ducked three weeks ago when teammate and roommate, hitter Cat Vaccaro planted one off her face in practice.
“She had an open net and it hit me right in the face,” Forsythe said of a first for her. “I just didn’t see it coming and didn’t get my hands up fast enough and that is the consequence of that. It’s fine, it was a very good hit. I like when they hit the hard shots at me. It’s a competition and I like when I get a dig on one of those.”
“Open net” in this circumstance refers to no one between the hitter and the defender, a real chance for an offensive attacker to cut loose.
“When it comes from the middle of the court it comes way faster and straight down more than any other hit,” added Forsythe. “There’s no time to move. Where you’re standing is where you have to react.”
Forsythe had the foresight to make a play on Loyola’s top scorer, Abby Hamilton, with her 4.28 kills per set, in another recent practice.
“I had to get down real quick because Abby was in the middle of the court. She just nails me in practice all the time and makes me better,” Forsythe said. “I think I’ve made her better, too, because there’s a few times I’ve gotten her [with a great dig] and she’s just like, ‘C’mon, Katie!'”
A common thread for Loyola, Towson and several other area teams seems to be a quality player at libero to stymie the opposing offense and initiate their own offense. Gomillion and Maryland are 14-4 overall this season. Roman and Coppin State are 9-7 overall and 3-1 in the MEAC. Teter, who has been named America East Defensive Specialist of the Week three times this season, had UMBC off to a fast 5-0 start in conference play.
Forsythe dug deep, thoughtful about her particular defensive craft. Then she laughed when asked about all the great play at her position locally.
“The Harbor must be giving off something,” she said.
If it is, there are a lot of players who are really digging it.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Loyola Athletic Communications and Towson Athletics