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November 10, 2010

DISHING IT OUT - Volleyball star Erin Leaser shares some thoughts on herself and the craft of setting

By: Matt Kovatch

Erin Leaser

With a 15-8 record at the start of November, the Virginia Tech volleyball squad once again was turning in a solid season. At the helm of the team is setter Erin Leaser, a junior whom, through the month of October, ranked second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 10.98 assists per set.

She recently surpassed Laura Hanner (1993-97) for fourth place on Tech’s all-time assist list – Leaser had dished out 3,385 helpers through 85 career matches played – and is on pace to reach second on the chart by the time her career is finished.

Born and raised in Allentown, Pa., Leaser was understandably bummed when her Philadelphia Phillies were bounced from the Major League Baseball postseason in late October, but she pleasantly agreed to sit down and fill us in on how she got here and where she’s going.

IHS: How did you get started playing volleyball and how did you come to like it so much?
EL: I started playing in fifth grade. I was interested because my sister had been playing, and my mom played in high school. It was just something that I came to love. I can’t really explain why, but I was always looking forward to going to practice. It just really became a big part of my life. It still is and I think it always will be.

IHS: When did you learn the position of setter? Did it come naturally to you?
EL: I’ve always been the setter. In fifth grade, we didn’t really have set positions so everyone did everything. But in sixth grade, when I first started playing club volleyball, is when I first became the setter. It was just something that I fell in love with. I loved having control and helping others. Everyone wanted to be a hitter when they were younger, but I never really had that desire. I wanted to be the quarterback of the team, if you can say that.

IHS: Did you play any other sports growing up?
EL: I was a swimmer. My two events were the 50 freestyle and the 100 breast stroke.

IHS: Was there any thought of doing that in college or were you always set on volleyball?
EL: I had a lot of people ask me if I was going to swim at Virginia Tech as well as play volleyball, but that would have been crazy. I had swum competitively since I was 6, but I never really had the same passion for it as I did for volleyball. I got recruiting letters from Division II and Division III schools around me in Pennsylvania, but volleyball was always my main focus and the thing that I had the most passion for.

IHS: How did you first learn of Virginia Tech and how did the recruiting process go?
EL: I was actually being recruited by [Tech head coach] Chris [Riley] while he was coaching at Towson in Maryland, but he moved to Virginia Tech between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

Erin Leaser, who is one of the best setters in Tech history, is thumbs up after helping the Hokies to another solid season.

IHS: Was there any worry after he made the switch whether he or Towson still wanted you?
EL: Yeah, a little bit, because Tech was a higher program and I wasn’t really sure if I played a part in his future plans. He was really interested in me going to Towson, but I didn’t know if that would roll over to Virginia Tech because the programs were so different. But I stayed in contact with him, and he was still interested, so I came down for a visit. I loved the players and I loved the atmosphere. I was really happy that I came down and that he chose me to come here.

IHS: You were no slouch in high school (Leaser was the MVP of the 2007 Pennsylvania state tournament and a Gatorade state Player of the Year runner-up at Allentown Central Catholic). Did you get any interest from Penn State or any other big-time programs?
EL: I got a little attention from Penn State early on because I went to their camp the summers before and after my freshman year, but after that, no, there wasn’t really any interest. I was being recruited the most by Towson, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

IHS: What are you majoring in and do you have any plans for how you want to use it?
EL: I am majoring in psychology. I don’t know what I want to do with it yet, but it’s just something that I’m really interested in. I feel like it can help me in whatever I decide to do after school, whether it be coaching or teaching or something along those lines.

IHS: Do you see more volleyball in your future?
EL: I really want to play in Europe after college. This past summer, [Tech teammate] Felicia [Willoughby] and I actually went on a tour with this agency called Bring It Promotions. It’s an agency for college players who are interested in playing overseas, and we actually went to Brazil for 10 days and played with a team of girls from around the U.S. that they put together. We played some Brazilian club teams and some pro teams there, so it was a good way to expose ourselves to that agency and for them to get to know us, just in case we decide to go through them when college is over. I had never been out of the country before, so it was really an eye-opening experience and it helped me to see where I’m at in that decision-making process.

IHS: How did you like going to Brazil?
EL: It was really cool. We did a bunch of sightseeing and we saw the Christ the Redeemer statue. We went to a Brazilian rodeo. It was really neat to see the differences in culture. It was really difficult, though, because they speak Portuguese. We had a liaison, but she couldn’t always be there to help us. It was hard communicating, but it was a really interesting experience and I’m really glad that I did it.

IHS: Is the food down there like the Brazilian-themed restaurants in the U.S.?
EL: Yes, a lot of the places that we went to were buffet style, and we actually went to a Brazilian steakhouse one night and they came out with the skewers and served us. You eat a lot of meat, but they also eat lots of fruits and vegetables. The breakfasts are really interesting as well. They eat bread and lunchmeat and lots of fruit – no eggs or anything like that.

IHS: How about the volleyball? Did it differ any from the way the game is played in the U.S.?
EL: I learned a lot. It’s different than volleyball in the U.S. They play at a lot faster of a pace. The players weren’t towers or anything – there were no 6-foot-5 girls like there are here – but they were all very athletic and they played all the way around. I mean, there were setters and outside hitters, but they all did pretty much everything. I think that’s the difference between the volleyball culture in the U.S. and elsewhere. They kind of train their girls to do everything and we train for a specific position. It was neat to see how everyone was so good at everything. They were very well rounded.

IHS: Felicia has said that she wants to play overseas after college as well. Do you two talk about playing together and what country would you like to play in?
EL: We’re not sure if we could ever be on the same team because they only allow two foreigners on each team, but we would love to play together and we do talk about it. I would love to play in Italy or France. I know two girls who are playing in Switzerland right now and they say that they love it, so that might be a good transitional place to play where I could just get used to the lifestyle, but I would say Italy would be my top choice.


The novice volleyball watcher will always notice the powerful spikes and the fearless digs of those spikes, but rarely the seamless intermediary of the two – the set. A defensive player can’t return an attack skyward without trusting that the setter can retrieve it, while an offensive player won’t have a chance at the crowd-pleasing kills if the setter can’t deliver the ball with supreme accuracy. As Virginia Tech’s setter, Erin Leaser has mastered the art of the all-important second touch, and she shared some tips about what her position entails.

Keep studying.

Because volleyball is played at such a fast pace, much of the game is based on reaction and instincts. But that doesn’t mean that Leaser isn’t mentally prepared.

“I think the most important part of my job is to read the defense on the other side of the net and to set what is available there,” Leaser said. “When we watch game film, I’m mostly looking for what the middle blocker does on the other side so that I can set the ball to whoever has one blocker. That’s a big part of my job during the game as well. If the middle blocker is committing to our middle hitter, then I can set our outside hitter to give her that one-on-one opportunity.”

Use the bread and butter.

Though the blockers on the other side of the net often cause Leaser to call on-the-fly audibles, à la Peyton Manning, the Hokies have plays to run, and it is important to stick to them when possible.

“I would say all of our sets are crucial for us to execute, but the one that works the most for us is our slide,” Leaser said of the play that features a running, jump-off-one-foot attack with an incalculable angle for the defense. “That’s the one that has to be the most consistent for me because it’s so effective. If it’s not, then our offense will probably struggle. I’d say that the slide is also my favorite to set because it’s so quick and it’s just so efficient.”

Stay unpredictable.

Though setters are usually racking up the assists, sometimes it’s fun (and effective) for them to do a little attacking of their own. They can do this with a ‘dump,’ which is when they – oftentimes inconspicuously – send the ball over the net on the second touch rather than setting it to a teammate.

“I’ve been dumping a lot more this season,” Leaser said. “Sometimes, you need to be more offensive so the blockers can’t stay committed to the hitters. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to wait and not to dump right away because they are expecting it. They’ve watched our game film and they know that I like to be offensive, so I try to wait a couple of games into the match before I start to do it a lot.

“I think the most effective time to dump is during a rally and not off the first serve receive. Once the ball is in play, the defense is thinking about the hitters instead of thinking about me. I think it’s easier to catch them off guard then.”

Find a safety valve.

Much like a quarterback dropping back to pass, a setter must keep all options open. But also much like a quarterback, it’s important to have a go-to teammate whom you can get the ball to in a pinch.

“I have a lot of people whom I can look to this year, but I’d say my No. 1 is [middle hitter] Felicia [Willoughby],” Leaser admitted. “She is really effective with everything that I give her. She is a really smart player and she scores more often than not. Even against a double block, she does great.

“But I know I can always look to Cara [Baarendse], as well as Jenn [Wiker] and Justine [Record]. I have a lot of confidence in everyone and I feel like I can give the ball to anyone at any time.”