Volleyball's Kaego Ogbechie can leap, fake, and kill.
Size matters, but elevation matters more. Tall, long-legged Kaego Ogbechie '05 can do almost anything on a volleyball court, in ways that literally rise above the crowd. Ogbechie (ohg-BAY-chay) isn't shy about her height "It doesn't stop me from wearing three-inch heels!" she declares which actually is about average for a middle hitter in women's volleyball. However, it is not long femurs but powerful leg muscles that launch her astonishing 30-inch vertical leaps. Add an upstretched arm, and the 5 foot, 11 inch, Ogbechie might swat a ball 10 feet in the air, the height of a basketball rim. Nice to roam the ionosphere like that, since the top of the volleyball net is only a bit over seven feet above the ground.
With six players per side, volleyball's basic setup puts three of them in the front line and three in the back. The players rotate positions each time the serve changes hands. And they specialize: the front line desirably includes two outside hitters flanking the middle hitter, with the setter and two liberos (defensive specialists) in back; by making substitutions as players rotate, coaches can approximate this arrangement. Hitters specialize in putting balls away with kill shots, and liberos in "digging" retrieving opponents' shots to keep the point alive. The setter aims to deliver easily hittable balls, ripe for the killing, to her hitters in front.
Consider this hypothetical play: Harvard has Dartmouth on the defensive, and the Big Green clears the ball over the net a "free ball," since it's there for the taking. The volleyball traces a big, lazy arc through the air until intercepted by a Harvard player who passes it to setter Kim Gould '05. Co-captain Gould calls out, "Thirty-two!" (The three in the number means she will send the ball to location number three on the front line; the two means the ball will rise about twice its width above the net.) Left outside hitter Pernilla "Nilly" Schweitzer '05 (like Ogbechie, a tall Californian) awaits, greedily yelling "32! 32!" in other words, "Give me the ball!"
But this play is a "tandem ball," sent to two hitters, so Ogbechie and Schweitzer both converge at the net, moving in from the 10-foot line, rubber soles squeaking. Across the net, two rangy Dartmouth defenders close in, raising both arms aloft to thwart the impending attack. Schweitzer's right hand is cocked to hit, and one Dartmouth player shifts sideways to stop her. But accepting the decoy leaves only one blocker on middle hitter Ogbechie, a fatal mistake. High aloft, Ogbechie selects her angle of attack; with an open right hand she smacks the volleyball swoosh, bam! in a kill shot that bounces near the sideline and resounds throughout the gym. The ball is, as volleyballers say, "down." Ogbechie relishes every aspect of the successful play, including the calculated deception. "In volleyball," she says, grinning, "you get to lie."
Team co-captain Ogbechie returns to Harvard's squad this year after missing most of last season, following spectacular campaigns in her freshman and sophomore years. Ogbechie "might be the best volleyball player I've had in the 13 years I've coached here," says head women's volleyball coach Jennifer Weiss. As a frosh, Ogbechie was named Ivy League Rookie of the Year, having led Harvard in blocks (of opponents' attempted kills) with 95 and ranking second on the team in kills. But that year the Crimson went 3-11 in the Ivy League and, as Ogbechie notes, "Personal success is not as rewarding if the team is not successful as well. I decided that as a sophomore, I would be more of an influence to lead by example."
Quite an example it was. Ogbechie led the Ivies in kills, averaging 5.22 per game in league play and posting a career-high 27 kills against Princeton. She became the first Harvard volleyball player ever named Ivy League Player of the Year, and only the second in Ivy history selected to the American Volleyball Coaches Association Northeast Regional All-America team. Furthermore, Harvard went 10-4, tying Princeton for second in the league behind Penn, which has won or shared the Ivy title for the past three seasons. Says Ogbechie, "That was by far the best year I've had, and that the team has had, in a long time."
But as a junior, the star middle hitter developed patella tendonosis after taking some hard falls on her right knee. "I couldn't jump, run, pass, or move," Ogbechie says. "It was painful." Last fall she played only five matches before "[The knee] quit on me and the doctor said I had to stop." Nonetheless, she came to every game, sitting on the sideline, rooting on the team, and nearly becoming an unofficial assistant coach. "Seeing things from outside is very different from playing," she says. "You see how things work on a broader level." After the season, Ogbechie had an arthroscopic procedure in which the surgeon scraped out the damaged tendon, which grew back in a natural regenerative process that takes several months. As the fall season began, the knee was close to fully recovered.
Ogbechie's family emigrated from Nigeria to Boston and then Los Angeles, where her parents, Lawrence and Henrietta, now a psychiatrist and a health officer for Los Angeles County, respectively, both attended UCLA. Her three athletic brothers, Nkem, Bioseh, and Ijeh, all excelled in football and basketball. (Older brothers Nkem and Bioseh were born in Nigeria, Kaego and Ijeh in the States.) "They're an incredible trio," she says of her brothers. "You grow up tough, fighting for your life every day, when you're the only girl. You fight to really have a presence, to hold your own and be authoritative; you learn to control situations that have gone a little bit haywire. And you learn to deal with men I've had a lot of male coaches, and it helps to know 'what means what' in male language."
In a family of athletes, Ogbechie's parents nevertheless told their children that "academics always come first put your nose in your books," she says. But she also competed in long jump, triple jump, and the 400-meter run before discovering volleyball in eighth grade. Two years later she was the only sophomore at Diamond Bar (California) High School to play on the varsity, and was soon performing well with club teams; 40 colleges recruited her. "My advantage was that I could always play defense," she says. "I didn't want to be stereotyped as only being able to hit." At Harvard, she excels at digging balls, blocking, passing, and serving. One rare and daring defensive play that Ogbechie enjoys is the "pancake," in which the player goes prone on the floor to get a hand between the wood and the ball: "That's one of the most fun moves."
She also relishes the versatility of the middle hitter position. Blocking an opponent's shot involves, crucially, "reading the setter" watching details like the opposing setter's position and posture, the location of the ball, the speed of her pass to predict where the set is going. Teams scan game videos of opponents to scout who tends to hit where. On a block, the best outcome is a "roof" blocking the attempted kill directly back for a kill of your own. Ogbechie estimates that good blocking can foil up to 50 percent of possible kills, but says that 10 percent is closer to the average.
Harvard's game strategy includes about 30 plays, all of them ending in kill shots, which involve finesse as well as power; one effective kill is tipping the ball softly over a blocker to drop on the floor behind. Of course, teams also win points on the serve, although it is no longer necessary to serve to score. (The NCAA adopted "rally" scoring, which allows either the serving or receiving team to score, in 2001. College teams now play best-of-five-game matches, with the first four games played to 30 points and the fifth game to 15.) The Crimson have often used "float" serves, a softly hit, flat ball that may wobble, but this year Ogbechie and teammates will do some jump serving, which means hitting balls harder (after a run and leap), with topspin that makes them dip into the court.
Ogbechie's preparation for this season, given the long rehabilitation of her right knee, has been both careful and vigorous. This summer, she had a wild schedule: working 12-hour days as a summer analyst at the global-marketing division of Merrill Lynch in New York (she earned a post-graduation job offer), then going straight to the gym for lifting, stretching, and cardio workouts to rehabilitate that knee. An economics concentrator (she began in biology, aiming for pediatrics, but "an internship after freshman year changed all that"), Ogbechie has also directed a Harvard Student Agencies program geared toward spawning undergraduate businesses and entrepreneurship. Her short-term goals include leading Harvard to its first-ever Ivy championship in women's volleyball, a sport in which Princeton and Penn have amassed 20 titles between them since 1977. It's a tall order, but Ogbechie is pretty tall herself. And elevation definitely matters.
~ Craig Lambert