Nov. 19, 2008

By Lara Boyko
Special to NCAA.com

During the 2007 season, Libero and then-junior Lara Newberry at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga would get at least one phone call a day from her mom.

That may not be so unusual considering that college students are used to getting at least one phone call from either one of their parents and that Newberry’s hometown is also Chattanooga, it was the topic of those daily calls that was anything but typical.

“Everyone, from my mom to our sports information director and our coaches would keep telling me about it,” said Newberry of how she was reminded that she was close to breaking an NCAA record last season. . “My mom would read the newspaper and would tell me how many digs I needed to get during each game to stay on track to break the record. She was pretty into keeping track of it and would call me at least once a day to keep me informed of how many I needed. I was definitely aware of it.”

Whether it was the constant reminders from her mom, Karen, or from challenging herself to do something extraordinary in her playing career, Newberry finished 2007 with one of the most impressive seasons in NCAA history for a defensive player. It was just last year when Newberry dug her and the Mocs in the record books when she broke the NCAA modern era single season digs record with 942 and was recognized as the National Libero of the Year by Collegiate Volleyball Update.

Along with breaking the record last year, Newberry also found herself leading the country in digs per set since the beginning of last season.

“Going from a pretty good season during my freshman year and then coming in trying to stay consistent made me feel like I had some pressure on me,” said Newberry. “I tried not to think about breaking the record because I felt like it put too much pressure on me to do well instead of just relaxing and doing what I know how to do. It was always in the back of my mind.”

With the milestones that Newberry as reached, it would be a safe bet that she has been playing the Libero position since those first sets of volleyball in middle school when she was introduced to the sport. Yet being a defensive specialist was not the game plan for Newberry who is now a senior.

“She did not play in the back row at all,” said University of Tennessee-Chattanooga volleyball coach Lisa Rhodes. “She was a setter and when her team ran a 6-2 offense, she would set from the back row. She also would hit on the outside from the front row. At her size of 5-foot-6, I looked at her and considering that the Libero position had only been implemented a couple of years earlier, nobody really knew or how to recruit for the position since it had been thrown in. Everyone in the country was turning players into Liberos. When I watched her play she was so athletic and had a great court sense where she could read balls really well. I thought she would be an amazing Libero position for us and recruited her specifically for that position where she has played for us for the last four years.”

Changing positions is sometimes hard to handle, but for Newberry it was as natural as having a sixth sense.

“She was great with it,” said Rhodes. “She knew that in any Division I program she wasn’t going to be able to hit and she wasn’t that great of a setter as her hands weren’t as quick or pretty as they should be in that position. She loved playing defense and can read the court well. What makes her so special is that she is a true athlete and the fact that she knows how to read the hitters so well is something that you can’t coach or teach. It’s a natural feel and that’s what she has.”

Along with Newberry garnering attention for herself for her accomplishments on the court, she is also helping a smaller Division I school get some attention and giving hope to vertically challenged volleyball players who want to play at this level.

”You always have those doubters who look at us like we are a small program and that’s why she is getting so many digs, but we have good volleyball in our conference and it has been proven by having teams from our conference that have reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament on several occasions,” said Rhodes. “It means a lot for our program because that’s one thing in the past before she came in that we prided ourselves in – back row defense. We are usually in the top 25 year in and year out in team digs, so she fit in very well with our philosophy on defense. Also with her being the No. 1 in individual dig statistics and having broken the record is a plus. They are wonderful things for her, our program and our university.

“I think it’s great for players who didn’t think they had a chance to play collegiate volleyball. They can add a lot to your team and make a major contribution to your program. She has done that and she is not a big kid.”

Karen Newberry may not have a milestone to keep track of for her youngest daughter this season, but with Newberry still ranked No. 1 in the country for digs, there is still a lot to talk about.

“My mom is not keeping track of that!” joked Newberry. “I haven’t thought about it since I am still in season, but I think later on it will be good for the program and it will be exciting to tell my nieces and nephews as well as my own kids when they grow up.”