With the losses of starting libero Maggie Reichard and setter and right side Cali Estes to graduation, the Elon University volleyball team has defense on its mind entering the 2014 season.

Elon looks to sophomore defensive specialist Morgan Maner to take on a bigger role and to both setters for more focus on their defensive presence.

Maner, from Burlington, started 2013 at libero before transitioning into a defensive specialist role while Reichard took the libero spot. Maner accounted for 262 digs, or 2.2 per set.

“The libero position comes with a lot of leadership,” said head coach Mary Tendler. “Being so young, that’s something she’s working on, as far as talking to the other players on the court and telling them positions and all that kind of stuff. She’s working on her leadership skills as well.”

With Reichard gone, Maner seems like the logical choice to step in at libero. Sophomore Chelsea Rafetto and senior Chanelle Smith are competing in the back row as well. Rafetto redshirted last year and played in 19 games — mostly at setter — in 2012. Smith is also an outside hitter.

Her teammates said Maner is motivated for the challenge ahead.

“She definitely isn’t backing down,” said redshirt-freshman setter Sydel Curry. “She’s accepting the challenge that’s ahead of her. She’s super aggressive, even in her everyday life. She’ll never be down for long, if she is down at all. She’s always challenging herself and challenging us. I think she’ll have a good season.”

Elon averaged 14.1 digs per set in 2013. That ranked ninth in the Southern Conference, but the Colonial Athletic Association is a much stronger conference. 

Maner is looking to improve that number in the back row, and has other things she’s working on.

“I probably need to be more vocal,” Maner said. “I’m focusing on owning my time on the court, which I think I’m doing a lot better job of this year than last year.”

Curry and junior Ana Nicksic are competing for the setter spot, and Tendler has had a special message for the two of them since spring practice.

“A lot of times, setters focus so much on setting the ball that the other parts of their game don’t get developed as quickly,” Tendler said. “Defensively, we’ve pushed both of them to be better defenders, and they have been. They’re making plays that they normally didn’t make.” 

Tendler related that message back to how it makes the team succeed.

“If the ball’s coming their way and we’re getting digs, getting swings out of it, that’s a good thing,” she said. “You can’t just do one thing on the volleyball court.”

Nicksic, while tallying 818 assists last season, also had 218 digs. She’s had defense in the back of her mind for the last few years — and it’s consistently getting better.

“I’ve always had to work on defense,” Nicksic said. “For me, I definitely know it’s gotten better. It’s not something I dread. You have to have grit and just go for it. I kind of realized that more.”

As a whole, Tendler’s message has gotten through. And if it keeps progressing, defense could become a strength of the team by season’s end.

“Our defense looks really good,” Smith said. “I think that’ll be our strongest aspect of our team. We’re a lot faster, a lot more aggressive on defense.”

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