Some might view a libero's role on the volleyball court as unsung. They are, by rule, forbidden from attacking at the net, where the business end of most plays is transacted. And while occasionally heralded for making a spectacular dig, the libero's pass is typically forgotten as quickly as it is subsequently distributed by the setter, then pounded by a high-flying teammate for a kill.
But when it comes right down to it, the best liberos are basically the ultimate ball hogs. And any coach interested in winning consistently is eager to offer their whole-hearted endorsement.
UC Irvine senior Kristen Winkler operates under this dichotomy, seldom getting much of the credit, despite accepting the majority of the workload in the back row.
"I expect every ball to come to me and I expect every ball to be my ball," said Winkler, who became the Anteaters' career digs leader on Sept. 7 and is now closing in on the Big West Conference career mark. "I don't let people take balls in front of me. You just kind of have that mindset that you're the best defender and that you should be getting every ball and making a play on every single ball. Sometimes you have to push people out of your way."
But while brimming with extreme confidence, the 5-foot-10 Winkler, who played outside hitter most of her prep career at St. Francis High in Mountain View, Calif., is as humble as she is determined.
"Honestly, if I get an amazing dig and we don't get a point out of it, I totally forget it," said Winkler who has 271 digs in 15 matches this season heading into UCI's Big West road clash at No. 8-ranked Hawaii on Thursday. "I'd rather get a dig and we get a point. That's a lot more memorable to me."
Winkler, a four-year starter, has secured her unforgettable status in UCI annals. With 18 regular-season matches remaining, her 1,855 career digs are already better than former UCI career leader Devon Sutherland, who had 1,756 from 2005 to 2008.
Winkler needs 339 more digs to surpass former Cal State Fullerton defensive dynamo Cami Croteau, who amassed a conference-record 2,194 digs from 2007 to 2010.
Until late last season, all these records were news to Winkler, who also owns the school single-match mark of 35 digs, achieved Aug. 31 in a tournament against Arizona State. Her single-season totals of 573 last season, 532 in 2010 and 479 in 2009 also rank No. 2, No. 4 and No. 6, respectively, on the school's all-time single-season list.
"I didn't know anything about any records until somebody mentioned that I was pretty close to one," Winkler said. "I was like 'Oh, really?' I honestly had no idea. I didn't even know where you could go to look for those things."
What Winkler knows to look for are serves, tips, roll shots, dumps and balls blistered off the palms of hard-swinging opponents.
It's a skill forged by experience, practice, intuition and meticulously prepared scouting reports.
"I think anticipation is definitely a big part of it," said Winkler, who also relayed the myriad specifics that allow one to redirect a ball rocketed toward the floor, not only upward, but within a reasonable proximity of her setter. With often less reaction time than that enjoyed by a major league batter, Winkler is frequently able to square up a kill attempt, or at least stick out a hand, arm, even foot, to keep an invasive offering in play.
"She's fantastic," said UCI Coach Paula Weishoff, whose team earned home victories over UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last weekend to forge the program's first 2-0 conference start since 2008. "She is a great player, leader and person for this team. She's just a competitor and a wonderful kid to have."
Weishoff said Winkler, one of three team captains, has helped the team remain focused throughout a 7-8 season to this point.
"She knows when to be tough, she will hold the team accountable, and she knows when to work with people," Weishoff said.
Winkler said her work on the volleyball court will most likely conclude at season's end.
"I'm studying abroad [in Paris] in January," said the business administration major, who aspires to a career in consulting or possibly sales.
Until then, the self-described fierce competitor will simply keep digging, for her team more than any records.
"One thing about libero is, it's the least-glorified position, because you always begin the play, but you never really end it," Winkler said. "I think leadership comes in when you can inspire other players by making those scrappy plays."