LAKEWOOD RANCH — Kelley Ainsworth knew the time would come.
The bumps and bruises would begin to fade and the pain inflicted by her run-ins with the court would become a thing of the past.
She just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.
A libero and defensive specialist, the Lakewood Ranch High junior, who is playing on the Mustangs’ varsity squad for the first time this season, anticipated learning how to set next year in preparation for college volleyball.
But when senior setter Ali Milbourn suffered a back injury early in the season, Ainsworth was thrust into the role earlier than expected.
“I wasn’t exactly prepared to go into it this year,” Ainsworth says of setting. “I was really nervous. I already was nervous coming in playing libero because it’s a big responsibility. It’s like being the quarterback on the football team, but, instead, it’s volleyball.”
As a result, freshman Ande McDonald, who has been playing libero since she began playing volleyball in sixth grade, assumed the role of Lakewood’s starting libero.
“That first game I felt a lot of pressure because I’d never played with these girls before and they were all used to it,” McDonald says.
The transition initially proved challenging for Ainsworth and McDonald, who are both learning their new roles on the court while still trying to maintain the same intensity and skill set that powered Lakewood to a berth in the Class 6A Final Four last season.
Since taking over their starting roles, Ainsworth and McDonald have helped lead the Mustangs to a 16-4 (5-1 Class 7A-District 10) record. Ainsworth is averaging 9.5 assists per set, while McDonald is averaging 6.2 digs per set.
For Ainsworth, the biggest adjustment has been relying on her hands to do the work.
“When you’re a libero, you use your hands as a last resort,” Ainsworth says. “Setters can’t do that.
Ainsworth spends a good majority of time before and after practice working with coach Perri Hankins on setting in hopes of becoming more consistent on the court. Over time, Ainsworth hopes to improve her skill set enough to practice different plays and run the offense more smoothly.
In addition to getting additional reps in during practice, Ainsworth also turns to Milbourn, who continues to be a fixture on the sidelines, for guidance.
“Whenever I’m out on the court, I hear her in the back of my head,” Ainsworth says. “She’s been a very big help.”
For McDonald, libero is the only position she’s ever known. So, rather than having to learn an entirely new position, McDonald’s biggest transition has been in getting to know her new teammates while adjusting to the speed of the game at the varsity level.
“The toughest part is just reading the hitter because there’s so much to cover in the back,” McDonald says. “I’ve gotten used to the whole flying-after-the-ball thing.
“I just have to remember to stay positive,” McDonald says. “I’m still just the little girl out here playing with big girls. I just have to take what they say and know they mean the best and are not just picking on me.”
One person who has been especially impressed with McDonald’s play on the court this season is Ainsworth, who knows firsthand the pressure that comes along with the position.
“Ande is so much better at libero than I was at a freshman,” Ainsworth says. “Every freshman on varsity is nervous coming in, but she’s always confident. She’s just as good as I am, so it’ll be amazing to see how good she is when she’s a junior and senior.”
But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t occasionally wish she were out there defending the back row alongside McDonald on a routine basis.
“I miss it a lot,” Ainsworth says. “I think libero is the most fun position on the court. There’s nothing like the feeling of diving down and getting a hand on it. I miss that feeling.
“It’s been a really good opportunity,” Ainsworth says of moving over to setter. “I didn’t come in expecting to play the entire time, but there’s nothing like on-court experience to make you play better.”
Contact Jen Blanco at email@example.com.
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