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The original idea for this post came about when I was trying to explain the substitutions of Kenzie Maloney, Nebraska's libero in 2017 and 2018. I realized in the middle of the explanation that I didn't understand all the details. I knew that she was usually but not always on the court, and I didn't fully understand why.
I looked for more information on liberos to understand the substitution behavior and wound up learning a lot about the position. I unfortunately couldn't find a single central explanation of all the libero's intricacies. It doesn't help that some rules differ between amateur, collegiate, and professional volleyball.
This post discusses the libero rules for the college game specifically. There's also a specific example of how substitutions (technically replacements) work.
The libero can never occupy a front-row position in the serving rotation. If you're not familiar with the serving rotation, this WikiHow page summarizes it nicely with some videos.
The libero cannot attack the ball with an overhand swing if the ball is above the net. She also may not perform an overhead set while in front of the attack line to a teammate who attacks the ball above the net.
The libero may not block nor attempt to block.
These rules reinforce the concept of the libero. She is a defensive specialist, prevented from being an effective attacker.
The libero may replace any back-row player. These replacements are not counted as substitutions (which are limited to 15 per set).
Like all other replacements and substitutions, the libero must be replaced by the player whom she replaced.
Libero replacements happen between the attack line and the end line. This distinguishes them from normal substitutions, which happen between the attack line and the net.
There must be at least one completed rally between each libero replacement except when the libero replaces the player in position 1 (the serving position) and is the next correct server. This effectively allows a double-replacement where the libero is replaced instead of rotating into the front row, but then immediately replaces the player moving into the back row to serve.
These rules enable the libero to be extremely flexible. She can enter and leave the game essentially infinitely and she can always replace a player in order to serve.
That's really it! There are some additional rules governing extenuating circumstances, such as substituting for an injured player, but nothing common. Finally, the libero has to wear a different color uniform to her teammates.
This example comes from the first set of the Nebraska vs. Maryland game, played on 2019/11/24 in Lincoln.
Players used in the following example:
Before the match even starts, Maloney replaces Stivrins. Stivrins and Schwarzenbach are opposite each other in the rotation so that there is always exactly one middle blocker in the front row.
Just a simple rotation here.
Stivrins replaces Maloney, as she must: Maloney is not permitted to rotate into the front, and as she replaced Stivrins, Stivrins must replace her. Immediately, Maloney replaces Schwarzenbach, the other middle blocker rotating into the back row. Maloney is able to do this because she is about to serve. Because she has not served yet, she has not "claimed" a serving rotation — a player may only serve in a single rotation during a set. Now, for the rest of the set, she can only serve in rotation 3.
Miller, a defensive specialist, substitutes for Sweet.
Another simple rotation.
Schwarzenbach replaces Maloney, as she must: again, Maloney can not rotate into the front row, and only Schwarzenbach can replace her. Maloney cannot immediately replace Stivrins, because she has already served in rotation 3 and cannot serve in multiple rotations. This is the only rotation without a libero on the court.
In this particular game, Stivrins served in the sixth rotation. In some games, a serving specialist like Hayley Densberger will substitute for Stivrins in this rotation.
This is identical to the 1st rotation, though because it is not the start of the match, Sweet must use a substitution to enter the game in Miller's place. Maloney replaces Stivrins in the back row as she did at the start of the match.
While it didn't answer my technical questions about how liberos worked, particularly for substitutions, this NCAA article helped me explain the basic rules above.
The official NCAA rules PDF was more helpful for the nitty-gritty details, though it required jumping around the document a little to better understanding the normal serving and substitution rules.
I rewatched the Nebraska-Maryland volleyball match on BTN2Go to check the lineup for each rotation. I think you need a cable package to watch the game.