Sept. 26, 2002
by Alan Wasielewski
Volleyball has developed into a very intricate sport. A quick glance at the game, with high-flying outside hitters who smash the ball down into the court or off opposing team’s hands for kills can lead a casual observer to see volleyball as a simple contest ruled by which team has the more powerful hitters.
But to collegiate volleyball coaches and players, the game reaches far, far deeper than the final action of each play. Every play in volleyball begins with a pass, and the ability to perfect that pass can determine the outcome of the entire match.
Handling a majority of the passing responsibility for the Notre Dame volleyball team in 2002 is senior tri-captain Janie Alderete. Alderete, along with classmate and fellow captain Keara Coughlin, have become the first Irish volleyball players to make an appearance as a libero.
Adding to the intricacy of the collegiate volleyball game, the libero is a new position for the 2002 season that allows defensive-only players more playing time in each match. For Alderete, it is a welcome addition to an improbable senior year.
“If someone would have told me that I would be a senior captain on the Notre Dame volleyball team in 2002. I would have told them they were crazy.” Alderete says.
It was crazy to believe that a 5-2 defensive specialist from Santa Clara, Calif., who began playing volleyball at the club level when she could still walk under the net without having to duck, could develop into one of the leaders of a perennial top-25 program.
As crazy as it might have seemed three years ago, it is a reality that Alderete was voted into a leadership role by her teammates and serves as a team tri-captain with Coughlin and junior setter Kristen Kinder for the 2002 season.
Alderete’s contact with the Notre Dame volleyball program began when she decided to concentrate on one sport after being heavily active in soccer, softball, basketball and volleyball during her prep career.
“I played every sport there is,” Alderete says.
“For some reason, I just loved volleyball. I was a gym rat. Once I got to high school, I concentrated on soccer and volleyball. I played the whole game in soccer and only half the game in volleyball, but for some reason that was enough for me. I stopped playing soccer my senior year because I wanted to play volleyball in college.”
Alderete was only capable of playing defensive specialist on the collegiate level and when it was time to go out and find a school, she knew much of the recruiting burden fell on her shoulders – not the prospective schools that she was interested in.
“My position is not heavily recruited in high school,” Alderete explains.
“If you want to play at the next level, you have to go out and write to schools yourself. I sent out letters and kept in contact with the schools that wrote back. Notre Dame was one of the schools that wrote back and stayed in contact with me for my entire senior year.”
Notre Dame head coach Debbie Brown remembers two factors during her contact with Alderete that made her a fit at Notre Dame. A tape which highlighted her infectious enthusiasm for the game and a key discussion with Jason Curtis, her high school coach.
“In the discussion with her high school coach, we talked about the qualities that were important in a walk-on,” Brown says.
“It had to be someone who was positive, up-beat and was willing to work hard with no guarantee of playing time. She also had to understand how to be a role player because at the time there was no libero position. I think her coach was very convincing about her character and the player she was. We could also see in the tape that she played with a lot of enthusiasm. The combination of those things was very important to us.”
A walk-on position was offered and Alderete accepted after contemplating possible spots at Cornell and Boston College.
“I was looking for a balance between academics, social life and athletics,” Alderete says.
“I wanted a school that had sense of community. When I came to visit, the team was amazing and the coaches were awesome. It seemed like the right place for me.”
Stepping on to a team with a bevy of talented players, Alderete kept her expectations realistic early in her career.
“The first year as a walk-on defensive specialist, I came in with the goal to make the travel roster,” Alderete says.
“By the end of the season, I had earned a spot. At the beginning of the season, I was very intimidated because there were a lot of players ahead of me. We were a small freshman class (only two players) and were not heavily depended on at the time. The coaches worked with me a lot. I have improved tremendously over the last four years. I do not think I was the player I am today as a freshman.”
Known as one of the hardest workers on her high school team after earning the Coach’s Award as a senior, Alderete discovered a new level of commitment at Notre Dame.
“I think what people learn when they come to Notre Dame is they think they work hard, and they do, but there is another level,” Brown says.
“I have to give that credit to Heather Mason and the strength and conditioning staff. They expand the work ethic of the team. I think that Janie has always worked hard, but she rose to the challenge when we have asked her to do more. She is in really, really good shape. Her body has changed and she is very quick with very fast feet.”
Alderete saw action in 26 matches and 65 games as a rookie defensive specialist in 1999. She also started two matches at the Community Bankers Classic in Stockton, Calif., after reaching her goal of earning a spot on the travel roster.
As a sophomore, she took a step forward as one of the team’s starting defensive specialists. Notre Dame is usually stockpiled with tall, athletic middle blockers at the net and in her first three seasons on the roster it was Alderete’s responsibility to sub in for those taller players when they rotated to the back row. She chalked up 180 digs and 32 aces in her sophomore season before expanding to 294 digs as a junior.
The defensive specialist title is a bit of a misnomer for a description of what role Alderete plays in the team’s game plan. Even the new position title of libero can be confusing.
“It is a critical role,” Brown says.
“It is the backbone of the offense. If we have good passing, it makes our offense very, very difficult to stop. If we have mediocre or bad passing, we are scrambling a lot and not making the opponents work hard to get their points.”
Alderete knows it is her responsibility to not only dig the opponent attacks, but to get the ball to the setter in a position which enables the offense to run smoothly.
“On defense in high school, you just need to get the ball up,” Alderete says.
“It was a great dig if I just got the ball up. Here, you are expected to get it up and get it to the setter at a good height and good pace. It was a hard adjustment, but the coaches worked with me a lot.”
Capable of making spectacular digs that can motivate the entire team, Alderete has been taught that digging the ball is just a part of the responsibilities a libero is expected to handle.
“In the libero position, we have determined that passing is the primary role,” Brown says.
“A libero’s passing has to be very strong. It is a heavy pass position for us.”
If Brown knows the libero’s passing responsibility is crucial to her team’s success, you can be sure the opponent’s coaching staff is going to test the libero early in the match.
“A lot of teams will come right after you in an attempt to break you down,” Alderete says.
“Sometimes at the beginning of a match, the other team will serve the libero and see if they can break you. If you can shake the confidence of the libero, then you can break down the other team’s passing and the match is yours. If you start struggling, you are stuck because the libero cannot be changed in the middle of the game.”
In the midst of her senior season, Alderete has excelled in the back row. Her 138 digs lead the team and she averages over 3.45 digs per game. She contributed 19 digs in Notre Dame’s upset of #10 Pepperdine and has also helped the hitters up front with 29 assists. Alderete has also been a part of Notre Dame’s school-record 30 match home winning streak entering the BIG EAST Conference opener against Connecticut. There is no statistic that traces Alderete’s passing prowess, but the Irish have posted a respectable .258 hitting percentage as a team.
Brown knew that Alderete was a hard worker, but her effect on the program has been a welcome surprise.
“I think she has grown into (a leader) for sure,” Brown says.
“I didn’t foresee her as a captain when she was a senior. She has really grown a lot and has become a very strong leader for us.”
It has all come together for Alderete. She earned a scholarship beginning in her junior season. Four years of hard work is coming to an end, but the libero has provided her with an expanded role with the Fighting Irish.
“I didn’t think (the libero) would happen while I was here,” Alderete says.
“I had always been told that is was coming. I feel like I am three years too old. It would have been amazing to play the libero in high school and the last three years at Notre Dame. It is not a glory position, but I am not in it for the glory.
“People do not understand it and are confused by the position, but the important thing is the coaches know how important it is and my teammates know how well I perform each match.”
Next time you catch the Irish in action defending their Joyce Center win streak, pay attention to the diminutive 5-2 libero running all over the court. Her performance may end up as the determining factor in a Notre Dame victory or defeat.