BREESE — The hitters get all the glory, but every volleyball coach knows that a good libero like Central's Taylor Rakers is worth her weight in gold.
"Who is going to get the looks? The hitters. The big-time hitters,'' Central coach Jim Cook said. "Setters don't get enough due either. I have always worked under the premise ever since I got into coaching that if you don't get the pass up, your setter doesn't have much of a chance to get a set up.
"You can have some of the best hitters in the world, but if you don't have people getting them the ball -- that takes a pass and a set -- they can't hit.''
The libero is a defensive specialist who remains in the game at all times and never rotates to the front row.
Cook traditionally hadn't employed a libero because he felt he didn't need one, but that changed early last season.
"I had never played a libero before,'' Cook said. "Last year, we got off to such a bad start, I knew we had to fix some things and part of it was the defense. I kept Taylor to have her as an outside hitter this year, but she loves playing defense.
"I thought, 'If she wants to try this, I still have (outside hitters) Makenzie (Jackson) and Lydia (Rehkemper) for this year. We'll go ahead and play her at libero and we'll have a defender out there all the time.'''
Defense has become a strong suit for the Cougars (35-5), who play the Wheaton St. Francis Spartans (37-3) at 6 p.m. Friday at Redbird Arena in Normal in the semifinals of the Class 3A state tournament.
"Our defense is very good,'' Central middle hitter Maddie Timmermann said. "We've always kind of struggled on the defensive end, but this year we have really stepped it up. Taylor knew she was going to be the main person for our defense, and she's made a difference.''
Rakers has a team-leading 238 digs this season.
"I've always liked passing more than anything,'' Rakers said. "I guess I am just good at it.''
The 5-foot-7 Rakers was a hitter at Aviston Grade School. She admitted that she occasionally misses the thrill of slamming a hard spike.
"Sometimes, because it's cool to hit the ball really hard,'' Rakers said. "If I hit it hard, I'm like, 'Yeah, burn!'''
Rakers enjoys a good dig just as much as a kill.
"That's the best feeling when the hitter doesn't expect it, like, 'I'm going to get a kill,' and we bring it back over,'' Rakers said.
Rakers, the daughter of Dennis and Joanna Rakers of Aviston, also plays basketball and softball.
Her father was the Cougars' girls basketball coach from the 1996-97 season through the 2004-05 season.
Rakers will focus solely on volleyball next year at Southwestern Illinois College.
"I really like the coach there, he's really laid back,'' Rakers said of SWIC coach Warren Thomas. "He used to coach my club team. Through watching me, he gave me a scholarship. I don't really know what I want to major in yet, so I can get my generals out of the way and play for two years.''
Rakers, Timmermann, and junior Sophie Rickhoff are the Cougars' primary passers charged with getting the ball to setters Torre Kohrmann and Lauren Willis.
The 5-foot-10 Timmermann gets a lot of attention for her team-leading 419 kills and 192 blocks, but she also has 152 digs.
"I do like the back row,'' Timmermann said. "I like diving on the ground and flying for balls.''
Rickhoff has 189 digs. She's the heir apparent to Rakers as the Cougars' libero next season.
"She's always helping me out, and I've learned a lot of what I do from her,'' Rickhoff said of Rakers. "She is really fun to work with.''
The 5-6 Rickhoff was a setter-hitter at Bartelso Grade School, but she's not tall enough to play at the net in high school.
Rickhoff has found her niche as a defensive specialist.
"Taylor is quick to the point, and she's a very good passer,'' Cook said. "And, Sophie is a good passer. Sophie will probably be our libero next year.''
Unlike Timmermann and Rakers, who were members of the Cougars' squad that placed third in Class 2A two years ago, Rickhoff will be making her first appearance in the state volleyball tournament.
Rickhoff got to experience the state tournament atmosphere as a member of the girls basketball team that placed second in the state during the 2011-12 season.
"I went there for basketball my freshman year and I played maybe two minutes because I was just a freshman,'' Rickhoff said. "I'm nervous and I'm excited.''
Contact reporter Steve Korte at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2522.