The libero is perhaps the most unique position in all of sports. To fulfill the duties of a libero requires a certain selflessness, as the position, by rule, poses little to zero imminent offensive threat to the opposing team. Instead, the libero, whose translation from Latin means “to liberate,” focuses on defense and ball control and is among the most important positions in relation to the strategy of the game of volleyball.
Following Madison Coulter’s departure from Tennessee’s volleyball team at the end of the fall season, many questions were raised to coach Eve Rackham-Watt concerning the at-large status of the crucial position. Her answer came in the form of sophomore Madison Bryant.
Bryant came to Tennessee as a back row option who, when presented with the challenge of libero, fully embraced the opportunity. Her first action as Tennessee’s libero came in an away match against Auburn.
“Before the game Eve was like ‘We are putting you in the jersey. Are you ready?’ and when the time finally came I knew it was time to prove myself, that all my hard work was worth it. I was over the moon excited,” Bryant recalled.
Bryant played well in her first crack at libero, totaling 12 digs and four assists in a three set sweep of the Tigers. It was clear that the former defensive specialist was taking her role and running with it out of the gate.
The Lady Vols went on to win their next three matches, bridging the gap between the fall and spring seasons in the process. In these four contests, Bryant averaged an eye-opening four digs per set while adding 16 assists to her stat sheet. It was becoming clearer that the Lady Vols had not just found a temporary replacement for Coulter, one of the top performing liberos in recent Tennessee history, but a long term solution.
"It’s harder to be a leader when you're not always in. Once I became libero, it was my back row,” Bryant said.
As with everything, the pandemic left its mark on this year’s volleyball season. The schedule was split in two in effort to mitigate the virus, but Bryant and the Lady Vols were up to the challenge and excited about the new opportunities the season gave them.
“It's been a different feel. We've kind of got a little more attention because normally we are on the backburner of football, especially here at the University of Tennessee. It’s been a little more fun because we are not on in the background,” Bryant admitted. “It’s hard to play all year long, but it’s a lot different than I thought it was going to be.”
Despite the different tone the season presented, Bryant continued to improve upon her first match versus Auburn months before. Following a series sweep against Mississippi State, Bryant was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, joining Lily Felts and Natalie Hayward as the only Lady Vols to be recognized with a weekly award by the conference throughout the season.
Continuing her success, Bryant notched a career high 26 digs and nine assists the following week in a four set victory over Arkansas. Now, with just two matches remaining in the 2020-21 season, Bryant sits alone at the top of the SEC standings in digs per set with 3.93. Bryant isn’t interested in personal accolades, however.
“I want to win. I’m happy my training has reflected in those numbers, but at the same time the only thing that matters is what’s in the win-lose category,” Bryant said.
Coach Rackham-Watt is ecstatic in what she found in Bryant, and knows the value she brings to the position for the University of Tennessee. Bryant will be a main part of the Lady Vols’ program going into next season.
“People might be surprised in some ways with the way she's playing, but I feel like she didn’t give herself another option," Coach Rackham said. “She is somebody who has done everything right. She has really worked at her craft, and is totally invested in herself to become the best player she can be.”
For Bryant, the work is just getting started. As for this year, Bryant summarized this bizarre season in just a few words.
“It’s a journey I'm beyond thankful for."