She can dig it
Valle enjoying big season for Arkansas with improved communication.
FAYETTEVILLE — Communication is key in volleyball, but that’s not always been easy for Arkansas senior Okiana Valle.
English is a second language for the Razorbacks starting libero and native of Puerto Rico. But she and the coaching staff have bridged that gap this season, and it’s helped Valle become one of the best defensive players in the Southeastern Conference.
“It was more like English was not my first language, and I was kinda like shy to talk because I didn’t know if I was saying the right things,” Valle said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to say. But the spring helped me get better as a player and a teammate.
“If I don’t talk on the court, basically I’m thinking too much and I make more errors.”
It’s not like Valle has been bad defensively in her first three seasons. But her production is just currently at an outstanding level, averaging a shade over five digs per set to lead the Southeastern Conference.
She made the SEC All-freshman team and became just the third Arkansas libero to average more than four digs per set as a sophomore. But the 5-foot-2 dynamo has raised her game to a new level. Valle recently climbed to the No. 2 spot in Arkansas history in career digs with 1,719. She won’t catch leader Ashley Miller’s 2,126, but if she maintains this pace the senior will post the best single season in school history for digs per set, eclipsing Miller’s 4.79 in 2007.
“She’s playing at a very high level right now,” Arkansas coach Jason Watson said. “There was a stretch there where she was at seven digs per set and even pushing eight.”
The Razorbacks (10-12, 4-8 SEC) open a stretch of four straight matches at Barnhill Arena tonight at 7 against Georgia (13-10, 4-8).
Watson acknowledged Valle’s struggle with the language and communication is hard for him to understand since he’s not been in that situation.
“I think only those where perhaps English is their second language can truly appreciate the struggle to be able to communicate and to be vulnerable enough to ask us for help,” Watson said. “There’s some frustration that comes out when you can’t communicate in the way you want with your teammates and coaches.
“As that has become better, we’ve seen her thrive academically, too. Also, after her freshman year there was a coaching change. The previous coach was from Puerto Rico and could understand and communicate with her well. Now I come along.”
It’s ironic that the Razorbacks have struggled offensively some this season, but Valle’s more than done her part, Watson said. She’s
receiving serve well and throwing her body all over the floor to get the ball to the setter and give her hitters a chance to score points.
Watson said Valle’s progress this season has also positioned her for an opportunity to play professionally, which was one of her goals.
“It’s kind of a conundrum,” Watson said. “But it makes you wonder what last year would have looked like if we were having this type of first-ball contact. But you’ve gotta live in the now, and improvement and performances comes when it comes.
“This is a remarkable season. I know she would like for it to rise the tide of the entire team, but I think if she’s not doing what she’s doing it could be a bit bleaker than we’d like it to be also.”
Okiana Valle, Arkansas senior libero, dives for a ball Wednesday during practice in Barnhill Arena. She currently leads the Southeastern Conference averaging 5.04 digs per set and ranks second all-time in career digs at Arkansas.
Arkansas senior libero Okiana Valle laughs Wednesday during practice.