She can dig it

Valle en­joy­ing big sea­son for Arkansas with im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL BOYD Paul Boyd can be reached at pboyd@ nwadg.com or on Twit­ter @NWAPaulb.

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.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

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.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

Arkansas se­nior libero Okiana Valle laughs Wed­nes­day dur­ing prac­tice.

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