Bishop’s in La Jolla eyes CIF championship

By Ed Piper

The mind of the libero in volleyball is something to behold. The libero — the only member of the team to wear a differently colored jersey — stands a breed apart. He is a defensive specialist, so he never approaches the front line at the net with the hitter/blockers he has to work with. He is usually shorter in stature than the hitters. Many times he is the high-spirited one on the floor, showing emotion, exclaiming on crucial points, pugnacious in diving after balls.

Alec Swanson of The Bishop’s School is one of these. In fact, though he has been starting libero all three of his years on the varsity Knight squad, he isn’t the only player in the rotation who is an experienced libero. His teammate, Scott McPherson, plays libero on his club team, though he plays a different position, hitter-blocker, for Bishop’s. In addition to all these other stand-apart factors, Swanson also has to swap out with a teammate, Pierce Schneider, in serving situations.

At this point in the season, as the Knights ready to enter the playoffs ranked number two in CIF Division II on with a 16-4 record, Swanson’s pugnacity has helped pay off with an undefeated Coastal League North season (7-0).

“The mentality of a libero is to not let the ball hit the ground at all costs,” said Swanson, who calls the libero the “effort player” because “they sacrifice their bodies and dive for everything.” Liberos are responsible for making sure the team is in the correct defensive formation, depending on the hitter and the type of hit coming over the net.

Humorously, the Bishop’s junior was “forced” into playing volleyball. In middle school, his favorite sport was basketball. But a “breakfast club” at school involved volleyball before school. He had to go to school at the hour his sister did, since they shared the same ride. In sum, Swanson said, “I became a libero because my sister was one, and it is a position for small players in a big man’s game. So it was sports, volleyball, perfect; plus the energy role was one that I loved to fill.”

Coach Jackie Bernardin’s Coastal League North champions feature plenty of weapons alongside their sparkplug. McPherson, their kill leader, rose to the occasion at key points in the team’s recent win over Cathedral Catholic High School in a home match. Another hitter-blocker, Chris Alleyne, showed power (20 kills) and passing skills in the 16-25, 25-19, 25-23, 28-30, 15-9 non-league vanquishing of the visiting Dons. Swanson had 17 digs. The small crowd roared as Bishop’s came back from the 1-0 first-game deficit to overcome Cathedral, ranked eighth in the San Diego CIF Section. Setter Eric Yu assisted impressively with both back and front sets to his hitters at the net.

“I am so proud of my team and the hard work they have been putting in this season,” Bernardin said. “I knew after game four (against the Dons) we would pull it out because of their confidence.” As the Bishop’s contingent got louder as the match progressed, Cathedral got quieter. Their coach, Paul Araiza, icily told his team, “I’m not going to say another word the rest of the match,” and threw something after Bishop’s won the second game 25-19. Cathedral was sleepwalking, whereas Bishops players were shouting, celebrating each point. The contrast was stark: The big, silent giant against the fired-up smaller unit.

“We finally put it all together,” said Swanson of the win. “I cannot overemphasize how much we have improved.”

Bernardin said she tries to focus on her athletes as whole persons, not just volleyball players, in keeping a bigger picture in her coaching: “I expect my players to learn from the sport to build character, respect each other, and develop a work ethic that will take them past the sport of volleyball.”

There’s a place for humor in building and maintaining team cohesiveness over the long haul of the season. “Chris Alleyne is our guy that keeps things light and fun,” said the coach. Alleyne is also a standout on the Bishop’s soccer team: “Sahil Sheth is the funniest player on the team,” Swanson said. “He has a lot of trouble staying in his shoes, and his postgame naps have made for some classic selfies.”

Bernardin singles out middle blockers Noah Fales, Schneider, and Sheth for the biggest improvement this year. Owen Gallahue, a freshman, has made strides through hard work and a teachable spirit.