Anyone who has attended any Ohio State women’s volleyball game this season would have noticed one player’s passion and enthusiasm for the game stand out like no other.
That player is junior libero Valeria León.
OSU’s “firecracker,” as coach Geoff Carlston described her, has not only stood out for her energetic performance on the court, but also for the numbers she’s putting up.
Over the course of her three seasons for the Buckeyes, León has piled up 1,193 career digs, which places her ninth all-time in the OSU record books.
But for the Ponce, Puerto Rico, native, earning that accomplishment wasn’t easy.
León said packing up and leaving her family and everything she had ever known to move to Ohio to pursue her dream of being an NCAA volleyball player was the toughest decision of her life.
“It was really tough (for me),” she said. “Everything was different compared to back home. I was still really young. I didn’t know any English, so I had to learn English in a really quick amount of time. Just learning the culture — everything.”
At times, she said, she questioned if she made the right decision, often telling herself, “I can’t do this,” and “I think I’m going home.”
But she stuck with it, and her decision to stay has paid off for both her and the team.
León’s season average of 4.38 digs per set has her on pace to be the best all-time at OSU.
“I’m really glad I stayed,” León said. “This is the best decision I ever made in my entire life. This has changed me as a player and who I am as a person, too.”
Not only does she rank first in digs per set, but if León continues at her current pace, next season she should surpass Stacey Gordon’s career-record of 1,572 digs.
“Just looking back at the history of Ohio State, I think it’s pretty awesome, because I know there (have) been amazing players coming into this program,” León said. “Being able to be a part of it is something really special.”
Carlston said León’s stats are something to behold, as the Big Ten is arguably the NCAA’s best conference. He said her energy and enthusiasm has helped propel the Buckeyes to the No. 16 ranking they currently hold.
“I tell her to be Puerto Rican,” Carlston said. “Let that true Puerto Rican out. The team loves it, it makes us better, and it allows her to be who she is.”
León said her style of play is something she brought along with her from Puerto Rico.
“The way we play there is so energetic all the time,” León said. “We scream, we try to coach each other. So I think bringing that with me and being able to share that with the team, I know that makes me a better player and makes my team better too.”
Carlston said it took a little time to develop for León’s leadership to develop, but now that it has, the coach has nothing but praise for it.
“I think she’s grown up so much since she’s been here,” Carlston said. “A lot of it has been her leadership and her voice and finding her confidence and all that. That takes a lot of work, especially for someone who came over and didn’t know the language when she got here really, it took a little while to feel comfortable. It’s just been so cool. I wish everyone had known her and seen her grow since she first got here. This really is pretty incredible, and I couldn’t be more proud of how much she’s grown.”
In addition to León being a standout defensively for the Buckeyes, she also has been extremely durable during her three seasons in Columbus, never missing a contest. This year, she has played in every set.
As the defensive specialist for OSU, León said it takes a physical and mental toughness to be that durable, but despite her individual success statistically, she only cares about winning.
“I don’t really think about the numbers, I just want to win games,” León said.
So far this season, the Buckeyes are 22-8 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes have two regular-season matches remaining: at No. 3 Minnesota on Wednesday and against Rutgers at 7 p.m. on Saturday to close out the season at St. John Arena. The Buckeyes are ranked 10th in the RPI, which should land them in the NCAA tournament come season’s end. León said she is poised to lead her team to a strong performance once they get there.
“We want to make it to the Final Four,” León said. “It’s a long journey. We know the team is capable of making a run and getting to the Final Four — we know what we can do.”