U.S. setters eye a full-time role

07/09/2010 12:00 AM

07/09/2010 12:06 AM

If Tyler Hildebrand had his way, he'd be an outside hitter.

The thrill of leaping high above the net and pounding balls across the court is what attracted him to volleyball growing up, and it's still what he admires most about the sport today.

But Hildebrand long ago traded in the excitement of high-octane scores for the satisfaction of being at the center of every play as a setter.

Why? It's what he's best at.

"You probably won't get this answer from a lot of setters, but I play because I like to compete," Hildebrand said. "I don't really enjoy the position, but it's what I'm good at. I would rather be an outside hitter or off playing basketball, but people have been telling me all my life I'm better off as a setter. So it's what I stuck with."

That decision is paying off. Hildebrand has stuck with setting long enough that he is now competing for the starting setter spot on the U.S. national men's team.

It is a role that is both pivotal to the squad's success, and coveted by its players.

"The setter basically sets up every play," said Kevin Hansen, another setter on the team. "He's the one that tells the hitters where to go and organizes the attack. You get to touch the ball every time it's on your side. It's a really important position on the floor, not only with the physical part of the game but the emotional part, too."

Coach Alan Knipe says setter is by far the most competitive position on the team.

Donald Suxho, Kevin Hansen and Hildebrand have all made their cases for the starting spot, and Knipe says there a few players on the practice roster with potential as well.

Suxho is injured and will not play against Russia this weekend in Wichita, but Hansen and Hildebrand will be available.

Whoever plays will have an important role. While the setter may not draw huge the cheers or make highlight-reel plays like Hildebrand prefers, he is considered to be the quarterback of a volleyball team.

Knipe will choose his starter carefully.

"The setter is the leader," Knipe said. "We have a lot of depth and high expectations at the position. There's plenty of competition going on there. Who is it ultimately going to be? We'll choose the guy who gets the team involved and is best with our other units."

Knipe's sights are high in part because of the player Suxho, Hildebrand and Hansen are fighting to replace. During their run to the 2008 gold medal in Beijing, Lloy Ball excelled at the position. A four-year Olympian, he was considered to be a cornerstone of the roster.

"He was the best setter in the world," Hildebrand said.

Knipe is looking for a replacement that shows consistency, and can provide leadership over the course of several matches. No one stands out above the rest at the moment, he said, but he will not hesitate to name a starter should one dramatically improve.

Hansen believes he can provide strong leadership on the court.

"My strong point would be just keeping everyone at an emotional keel," Hansen said. "I'm able to relate to players pretty well. Some players need yelling at, some players need you to step back and let them do their thing. I'm pretty good at engaging on the court, making sure our team isn't up and down emotionally."

Hildebrand said he is best at adjusting his game to fit any kind of offense.

Will that be enough to win him the starting spot in the 2012 Olympics? He doesn't know. But it's an opportunity he relishes, and helps him forget about the thrill of outside hitting.

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