Play Big

Volleyball is known for attracting tall athletes, but smaller, driven players can make an impact on the court as well

FIVB
Nicole Davis worked her way up to the Olympic team despite being short.

Laura Broerman had one dream as a young volleyball player. The Colorado native wanted to win an NCAA Championship, but the odds seemed stacked against this competitive athlete. She didn’t stand shoulder-to-shoulder with most girls in a sport that’s dominated by tall players.

Broerman, the feisty 5'4" defensive specialist at Penn State, refused to let her small stature interfere with her dream. She rejected the notion that volleyball was a game only for players closer to 6'0".

And last December—when her Nittany Lions captured the 2013 national crown—Broerman proved that even the most vertically challenged players can reach the highest levels in this sport.

“There is absolutely a place in volleyball for shorter players,” Broerman said. “Coaches may gravitate toward taller players, but that’s when shorter players have to bring out something that is unique to them.

“What I find with a lot of shorter players is their presence on the court,” she added. “They may be small, but they play big.”

College players and coaches across the country agree. They say a player’s ability and value to a team can’t be measured solely in feet and inches. Factors such as heart, hustle, and dogged determination are just as important as size.

“If you need a middle blocker or outside, you look at height,” said Texas State University head coach Karen Chisum. But tall players aren’t guaranteed spots on her team. “I also look into a player’s heart. The deal breaker for me is their heart, energy, and passion.”

How many short players actually dig, set, or pass their way to the top of the collegiate volleyball charts? How many girls who are 5'4" and under compete for the best teams in the country?

Volleyball magazine reviewed the 2013 rosters of the top 100 DI teams and found 51 petite players listed on those squads.

Fifty were defensive specialists or liberos.

Only one was a setter, Texas State’s Ali Gonzales. The 5'2" walk-on doesn’t consider her size a disadvantage and said it never blocked her access to the sport. In many ways, she said, it fueled her drive to elevate her game and play for a nationally-ranked team.

“No one thought I’d make a DI team,” Gonzales said. “But I overcame the odds and made this one.”

What are her secrets for success? “My speed, agility, and outward vocal-ness,” she said.

This fiery underdog has another weapon in her toolbox: her volleyball IQ. “You have to know and understand this game,” said the former basketball and track star from San Marcos, Texas. “You have to be a student of the game.”

As a setter, for example, Gonzales lets her hitters know where the holes are on the court. “I’m telling them to hit cross, line, or tip,” she said.

Those traits and talents earned Gonzales a spot on the Bobcats’ team.

“Ali is here because of her passion,” Chisum said. “It’s her volleyball IQ and leadership skills that helped her get where she is today. Walk-on players are normally our practice players, but Ali moved way above that level. She’s competitive. And she has a heart the size of Texas.”

At the University of Oklahoma, small and aggressive players are the cornerstones of the volleyball team’s defensive strategy.

“I believe defense wins games,” said head coach Santiago Restrepo. “[Our roster is] loaded with short, talented players. I know they’ll give me an edge in the back row.”

The Sooners had four players shorter than 5'4" on their 2013 roster – more than any other top 100 DI team.

“I know everyone thinks you have to have players who can get those kills and generate points,” Restrepo said. “But I look at things backwards. I look at defense first. To me, you have to have players who concentrate on the pass 100 percent, who can serve, and who can defend.”

Restrepo recruits short, quick players like Taylor Migliazzo, who have mastered the art of reading the ball before they react. “If you’re a defender, height doesn’t matter if you can cover space on the court,” the 5'4" DS said.

The former high school standout from Missouri understands that most coaches notice tall players first, but that has never kept her off the court.

“Height doesn’t matter as long as you work hard and find a position that fits best for you,” Migliazzo said. “There is definitely a way [for short girls] to play if they work hard. It can be intimidating, but never give up.”

The University of Kansas’ Jaime Mathieu—a five-foot dynamo and the shortest player among the top 100 DI teams—switched positions early in her career to increase her odds of staying in the game.

“I started out as a setter,” said Mathieu, who earned Big 12 honors as a DS. “But when I was a sophomore in high school, I realized that wasn’t going to work for me. It was disheartening.”

But Mathieu overcame her disappointment by dominating a new position. The pint-size powerhouse tapped into her naturally competitive spirit and unwavering determination to chase down every ball. She quickly became a daunting force on the court.

“I had to make up [for my height] in other areas of the game,” said Mathieu, who graduated in May. “One was being super vocal. I also hustled to get the ball. And I have the ability to set, so it was easy for me to take hard serves with my hands.”

Many college coaches overlooked this short, scrappy player during the recruiting process. But her high-octane abilities captured the attention of an assistant coach at KU during one of the team’s camps.

“My assistant worked with Jaime and said, ‘This kid is strong technically. She can serve and pass the ball at a high level,’” said Ray Bechard, head coach of the 12th-ranked Jayhawks. “My assistant also told me that Jaime had this energy and presence that could help us become a better team.”

Bechard soon offered Mathieu a position at Kansas – a move he’s never regretted.

“She is the shortest player I’ve ever coached,” he said. “She’s the shortest player I’ve ever seen in our conference. But that didn’t keep her from contributing to our team the last three years – two of which have been the best years we’ve had.”

Penn State’s head coach Russ Rose applauds the contributions short players have made to his top-rated volleyball program that has clinched the NCAA title five times in the last seven years.

“We ran a couple national championships [2008-2010] with Cathy Quilico, who was five-feet tall,” Rose said of the school’s former DS/libero. “She was a big contributor. She was a good listener to the scouting reports and was hungry to make great plays.

“I always talk about the big contributions made by short players,” he added.

Remember DS Laura Broerman? She’s one of Penn State’s up-and-coming short players, who will stop at nothing to ensure her team continues its reign in collegiate volleyball.

“As a defensive player, I have to be the one who is fired up on the court,” she said. “I have to be the crazy one in the back row with the tenacity to go for the ball.

“I will do anything to get the ball.”

Small players, she said, have to excel at something different from their taller teammates to stay in the game. They have to make their presence known on the court, especially during the recruiting process.

“If you have to dive over someone or knock them down to get a ball, then do it,” Broerman said. “There any many things a short player can do to outshine height.

“Never get discouraged,” she added. “It’s crazy to think that I’m playing at Penn State and we won it all. It’s still unreal.”

But given the determination of Broerman and other short players, reaching such heights in volleyball is not an impossible scenario.

Traits Coaches Look For In Short Players

- Leadership
- Communication skills
- Competitive spirit
- Passion to chase down every ball
- Ability to pass, serve, and dig at a high level
- Ability to read the ball early
- Desire to make their teammates better
- Willingness to play a position that matches their size. Many short players have switched from setter to libero or DS
- Intelligence
- High volleyball IQ
- Athleticism

Players & Coaches Comment on Size

“I don’t think shorter players have to work harder. I think we want to work harder. We want to prove that we are just as fast and good as taller players. It’s a mindset with short players.”
– Ali Gonzales, setter, Texas State University

“Don’t let height stop you from playing. There is a place in volleyball for short players. If they have heart, energy, and passion I bet they’ll
find a place.”
– Karen Chisum, head coach, Texas State University

“There are tons of opportunities for short players. There are 300 Division I teams. There are Division II and III teams. And there is the NAIA. If [short players] want to play badly enough, they should keep working hard. They should keep playing the sport they love. There will be a place for them.”
– Santiago Restrepo, head coach, University of Oklahoma

“Never give up no matter how short you are. There is definitely a way to keep playing if you work hard at your position.”
– Taylor Migliazzo, DS, University of Oklahoma

“There are going to be players who tell you you’re short. There are going to be huge hitters on the other side of the net aiming at you. But don’t be intimidated by them. Consider everything a challenge.”
– Laura Broerman, DS, Penn State

“Do I notice taller players first? It depends on what I’m looking
for. I look at a lot of different things. Sometimes, I look at different positions. Other times, I might look at a court and what stands out to me is the performance of a smaller girl.”
– Russ Rose, head coach, Penn State University

“I don’t think height is a factor. If you have heart and drive you can
get noticed and play at the collegiate level.”
– Jaime Mathieu, DS, University of Kansas

Olympic Heights

Nicole Davis never let her small stature keep her from rising to the top of women’s volleyball. The 5'4" libero was a starter on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that captured silver in London. The former University of Southern California national champion made her first Olympic appearance in the 2008 Games in Beijing, China. Davis now competes on the international circuit and is a member of the U.S. Women’s National Volleyball Team.

Attention Getter

Jaime Mathieu, the 5'0" DS from the University of Kansas, wowed fans, players, and coaches every time she played. “She had people come up to her after games and say, ‘How did you do this?’ Meaning how did she play when she’s so short,” said KU head coach Ray Bechard. “But if you can serve the ball at a high level, pass the ball at a high level, dig the ball at a high level, and communicate, you can play anywhere regardless of your size.”

Originally published in August 2014

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