Almost every team in every sport has a defensive specialist ““ somebody who chooses to embrace the challenge of stopping the other team’s best scorer.
They work as hard as anybody on the team, but often their individual performances become an afterthought, lost in the media frenzy of scoring plays ““ dunks, goals, kills, runs.
Lainey Gera is that somebody for UCLA women’s volleyball. As libero, she plays only in the back row and cannot attack the ball if it’s above the net. Her stat sheet boasts mainly digs and assists ““ nothing that would be deemed a top-10 play by SportsCenter, and she loves it.
“The libero position is kind of a selfless position. You don’t get credit for everything you do. … You’re the one that starts the play and you’re the one that kind of does everything for everyone else, but you can never finish the play,” Gera said.
Coach Mike Sealy summed up the libero position and, specifically, Gera’s importance with a smile: “It lets you keep all the other big dummies on the court.”
“Sometimes it gets frustrating but I love what I do, and I love being able to supply some of the stuff I can for the other girls and have them be able to do what they’re doing,” Gera said.
Gera’s family life helped develop this selfless attitude and team mentality. Both her sisters, two and three years her senior, played volleyball at Fresno State University for four years, and Gera was exposed to the sport at a young age.
“I started playing when I was around 8,” Gera said. “I was still in my soccer stage when my sister started playing (volleyball) and I started going to all her games.”
Gera began playing regularly with her sisters from that point on and learned as much as she could. Her second oldest sister Lacey was an outside hitter, and her oldest sister Lisa was a setter.
“We always used to go in the front yard and pepper, and she’d always be telling me what to do and I used to get so mad at her, but she was always right so I watched her and listened to her,” Gera said.
Gera played club volleyball with her sisters and also played with Lacey at Archbishop Mitty High School for one year.
According to Gera, a factor in her development as a player and her knowledge of the game was that her sisters were both different positions and had different perspectives to give advice from. She could hear from Lacey, an outside hitter, how she should pass, and her sister Lisa offered a setter’s viewpoint.
“They would always tell me their own stories. We all fed off each other because we were all different positions. Whenever they would get frustrated about stuff I would tell them why it’s hard for that certain position, or they would tell me, “˜You need to be helping this person out because that’s how I like things.’ We fed off each other. It wasn’t like they were always telling me stuff ““ we were more unified about it.”
Gera said when it was time for her to graduate high school, Fresno State’s volleyball coach approached her about playing for them, but she decided to go in another direction.
“Both my sisters went to Fresno State, which is a really cool school, but didn’t really fit me. I wanted to do something different and not follow them all the time ““ that’s how my whole life kinda was, following behind them, so I branched out from what they were doing.”
Her defensive skill and energy spoke for themselves, and Gera found herself playing important minutes in her first year on the team.
“My freshman season was awesome, because I had no expectations of playing or anything. I was ready to book all my flights to go home on the weekend because I was so homesick. But I ended up traveling the first tournament to Hawaii and actually playing. The seniors on that team were so awesome, and they helped me out a lot,” Gera said.
Gera’s humility is truly impressive when you take a look at her stats. The senior is third all-time in UCLA’s record books with 1,394 digs and averaged 4.92 digs per set last season. A benefactor of those digs for two years has been junior outside hitter Rachael Kidder.
“The libero is very important to our team. She starts off every play, and people hit a lot of balls at her,” Kidder said. “She basically covers the whole court by herself.”
Now a senior, Gera reflects on what advice she would give to herself as a freshman.
“Don’t be afraid to be yourself. When you’re a freshman you’re really scared, and you’re timid because you’re worried about “˜Oh my God, the seniors are going to hate me if I’m myself.’ I think you should be who you are.”
Developing an identity has been important for the team this year, and that identity is growing every game. The team’s passing and defense were huge in its sweep of USC last week, and it will continue to be central to the team’s success. Gera is a big part of that defense.
“They’ve done studies internationally, and after the two left side hitters, the libero is the most important spot. She does all the garbage and takes care of all the ball control to let the big hitters not have to worry about it,” Sealy said.
Kidder cited Gera’s attitude as inspirational and an invaluable member of the team.
“She’s really confident and she’s a great leader ““ she knows how to communicate with her teammates. She makes me want to be a better player,” Kidder said.
She may not care about stats, but that doesn’t make her a slouch.
In describing her goals for this season, Gera answered frankly.
“Winning ““ winning the Pac-12 and bringing home a national championship. I think it’d be really great to be my senior year and go out big and know I left something behind.”