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Red River libero helps lead Roughriders to state tournament

Growing up watching Grand Forks Red River volleyball, Maddie Johnson admits her focus was on what was happening at the net. "I was probably watching the hitters,'' Johnson said. "Those are the players you notice most, the ones who put the ball aw...

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Growing up watching Grand Forks Red River volleyball, Maddie Johnson admits her focus was on what was happening at the net.

"I was probably watching the hitters,'' Johnson said. "Those are the players you notice most, the ones who put the ball away, who hit it hard.''

Johnson isn't a big hitter. Instead, the senior has garnered attention with her back-row play for the Roughriders, who take the East Region's No. 3 seed into this week's North Dakota high school volleyball tournament. The 26-8 Roughriders play Bismarck Legacy (32-9, West Region No. 2 seed) in a quarterfinal match at approximately 8 p.m. Thursday in the Fargodome.

Johnson joins Mikelle Fetsch (2011) as the only Riders in the past 20 seasons who have gained all-conference honors as primarily back-row specialists.

The all-conference selection "surprised me,'' Johnson said. "Usually it's the hitters, the ones who can put the ball away, or the setters, who get that. To be a libero on the all-conference team, that's pretty cool.''

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Red River coach Carolyn Olson said all-conference honors for back-row specialists have become more common in recent seasons with the addition of the libero and changing substitution rules that allow defensive specialists to get more playing time.

"It's become a more critical part of the game,'' Olson said. "Liberos are playing full time if coaches choose to use them. A good libero can be a game changer.

"When you don't pass well, you can't run an effective offense. A lot of our success this year is because we've played a libero and two defensive specialists. That's solidified our defense. Maddie has a terrific job. She's worked hard to improve her game and grown as the season's gone along.''

In volleyball's chain of events, Johnson (554 digs) and defensive specialists Sarah Lancaster (269 digs) and Ella Paul (185 digs) get the ball to setter Lexi Robson. The senior, who has 895 assists this season and went over the 1,000-assist mark for her career last week, then gets the ball to the hitters.

Robson has a lot of options at the net. Maggie Steffen sets the pace with 419 kills, followed by Hanna Schreiner (254), Maddie Anderson (212), Kendra Bohm (187) and Alexis Brown (171).

To have five hitters with more than 170 kills isn't typical, Olson said. "We have had a lot of five-set matches,'' Olson said. "That inflates the numbers some. But I do think that we have quality hitters.''

And then there are those back-row specialists who both deny points and initiate the offense.

"I think the defensive specialists often are overshadowed by the hitters and setters,'' Olson said. "Everybody talks about the big hits in a match. (Back-row defense) isn't a part of the game that gets a lot of attention. It's a selfless position.''

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Red River at a glance

Coach: Carolyn Olson.

Record: 26-8.

State tournament opener: The Roughriders, the No. 3 seed from the East Region, play West No. 3 seed Bismarck Legacy (32-9) at approximately 8 p.m. Thursday in the Class A state tournament quarterfinals in the Fargodome.

State tournament history: Red River is making its 10th straight appearance at state and the 30th appearance overall. Red River has more state tournament appearances than any team in the state, as well as more state titles (eight) than any other team. The Riders' last state title was in 2011. They placed fourth last season at state.

Roughriders' regular rotation: Sr. S Lexi Robson (895 assists, 29 service aces, 264 digs), jr. OH Maggie Steffen (419 kills, 29 service aces, 21 blocks, 412 digs), sr. OH Hanna Schreiner (254 kills, 14 service aces, 43 blocks, 90 digs), sr. MH Kendra Bohm (187 kills, 22 service aces, 31 blocks, 89 digs), jr. MH Alexis Brown (171 kills, 30 service aces, 16 blocks, 144 digs), sr. RH Maddie Anderson 212 kills, 11 service aces, 12 blocks, 101 digs), sr. L Maddie Anderson (16 service a es, 554 digs), sr. DS Sarah Lancaster (31 service aces, 269 digs), jr. DS Ella Paul (34 service aces, 185 digs).

Maddie Johnson
Maddie Johnson

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