University of Toledo volleyball player Maurissa Leonard. At St. Ursula, Leonard was part of two state runner-up teams. UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO
While racking up digs on the volleyball court and expanding her role as leader of the team, University of Toledo junior Maurissa Leonard is embracing her role as the team’s defensive ace.
“I love it,” Leonard said. “From a young age, I knew I was going to be short. So I knew I was going to be in the backcourt. I was never going to be a hitter. I embraced it early and I try to make it my job to not let anybody score on me. I just said OK, if that is what I’m going to be, I’m going to try to be the best at it.”
Leonard, a St. Ursula graduate, has continued to progress as a player since arriving at her hometown college. She earned All-Mid-American Conference honorable mention accolades as a sophomore, and so far as a junior, has taken her game up a notch. She was named MAC West Division defensive player of the week Sept. 5, and recorded a career-high 40 digs in a five-set match Sept. 9 against Marshall. The Rockets currently are 5-9 overall and 0-2 in MAC play.
“She’s progressed tremendously,” UT volleyball coach Greg Smith said. “We knew coming out of St. Ursula that she was going to be a really good asset to the team and bring a lot of competitiveness, knowing that there were always things to work on skill set-wise. She has progressed because of her competitiveness. She wants to be the best, and that drives her to continue to come in for extra reps. She is always coming in for extra reps. Her leadership has really developed. She has done it in all aspects of being a collegiate athlete.”
At St. Ursula, Leonard was part of two state runner-up teams (2011 and ’13) under legendary coach John Buck. She has brought that standard of excellence with her to Toledo.
“Going to state championship matches, by that experience, she is bringing that into our gym,” Smith said. “Being from St. Ursula and having the success that she had, it translates into what she is doing here.”
Leonard said because of St. Ursula’s success, she and her teammates had to learn to be mentally tough each and every day.
“In high school, we always had a target on our back,” Leonard said. “So I think in high school, I learned a lot about my mental side of the game. It’s just every day has to matter, because if it doesn’t some other team can come in and beat us at any point because we have such a target on our back. Obviously, I learned some physical skills and stuff, but I think I learned a lot in high school of the mental side of it. Coach Buck worked a lot with us on that.”
During her sophomore season, Leonard transitioned to libero, a position that is defensive in focus. A libero is not allowed to block or attack the ball when it is above the height of the net.
“With her being in the libero position, she is basically the captain of the back row,” Smith said. “She’s done a very good job of talking to the front row, letting them know what shots are open and talking about the set up of the blocking. Her communication has developed tremendously since freshman year, especially going into libero role last year to this year.”
For Leonard, the defensive duties start with receiving the serve and extend to communicating with the blockers and hitters in the front row and digging the ball when an opposing player goes for a kill.
“First is always to serve receive and try to get in system so that we have all of our options and so that the other side doesn’t know where we are going,” Leonard said. “Then on defense, I have to worry about the setter and talk to the blocker and make sure it is set up right, and then I have to get in a decent dig.”
This season, Leonard has made a subtle change going from middle back to left back.
“Even last year, she was in the middle back as our libero and this year she is learning how to play left back for the first time,” Smith said. “She never played that at St. Ursula, she was always middle back. So for her to learn how to learn how to be a left back and learning the different nuances of reading from that position, she has picked that up very quickly and has done a nice job in that role.”
Leonard, who wants to be a nurse, said that program at UT was a big draw, as was the vision of Smith for her and the program. From mixing in a home-cooked meal every now and then to having friends and family able to attend games, Leonard loves every minute of playing at home.
“I maybe could have gone a little bit further, but I love being close,” Leonard said. “I’m so happy with this decision. I can go home for dinner whenever I want, but at the same time any of my family members can come to my game and I love that.”
Smith loves it too Leonard, a talent developed locally from a young age, chose to play for his program.
“I think it’s very important,” Smith said. “There is a lot of good talent in this area. There are definitely opportunities for players to be here. We always want to continue to recruit this area. Having Maurissa as a part of it, coming from a very historic program like St. Ursula and from Toledo Volleyball Club, it’s nice to have someone with local roots. We want to continue to recruit locally and having her here helps in that aspect.”
St. Ursula's Maurissa Leonard (1) returns a serve against Oregon Clay during a volleyball match in 2014. THE BLADE