Knox College Athletics have been doing exceptionally well this season, and Volleyball is no exception. Few would have expected that they would currently be 4-0 in conference matches, 10-10 overall or ranking first within the conference. Though they were predicted to finish second to last above Beloit, the team is already resetting many standards for Knox Volleyball.
Head Coach Ashley McDonough is having an exemplary debut season at Knox, propelling the program forward after the departure of former head coach Shayla Chalker.
“Ashley moves things around quite a bit,” senior Casey Stachelski said. “If something isn’t working she picks up on it and changes things. If you’re playing a position that you normally don’t, you have to think differently about what’s going on. It’s been really helpful when it seems like we’re stuck in a rut.”
The team has been anything but stuck in a rut, even with their seemingly bumpy pre-conference record of 5-10. Through pre-conference, the team showed promise when compared to the previous season’s final record of 5-24. Last year’s pre-conference record was 3-17. The team is taking it all in stride, acknowledging that they began with a challenge this season.
“Before conference play, we were playing teams that were really good,” Stachelski said. “A bunch of them were nationally ranked or getting national bids. We took those games as an opportunity to become better. I don’t think any of the teams in our conference are stronger than the teams that we played earlier in the season, which is why we’re playing with so much confidence.”
This confidence seems due in part to the team’s compatibility and comfort in playing with one another. With a small roster, now of just eight, most of the members have been playing with each other for at least a year, learning each other’s strengths and more importantly their weaknesses. The team has had little issue incorporating McDonough, their relationship based upon mutual respect.
“I think we have a very open relationship,” McDonough said. “There isn’t anyone on the team that feels they can’t approach me if something is bugging them. Not that they are ever disrespectful, but they feel free to make suggestions and ask questions in situations where athletes would normally hold back.”
The collective confidence can also be attributed to the team’s improved athleticism and endurance. Conditioning harder than past seasons allows the team to outlast their opponents. Each practice begins with running drills, followed by a variety of “what if” scenario drills, preparing the team to expect the unexpected and erasing frustration on the court during games. The ability to play consistently through five sets with a similar level of energy and technicality is the standard the team has laid out for the season.
“A lot of teams play conservatively when the game is on the line,” McDonough said. “We have talked about maintaining our level of play from start to finish. We aren’t scared to take risks and to come out swinging. We play to win.”
Individual players are drawing attention from the Midwest Conference for their aggressiveness in games, with half of the team ranking within the top 10 of four different statistical categories. Junior Jakeiyah Triplett currently ranks fifth in digs, Stachelski third. Freshman Rachael Powell is seventh in service aces and sophomore Rose Griffin second in total kills and hitting percentage. With experience across the board, it is no surprise the team is coming off a six-game winning streak. Seemingly unstoppable, many are raising the question of how the team will hold up without their top scorer going into the back half of the season.
During the Grinnell game this past Saturday Griffin broke her ankle badly, forcing her to sit out the remainder of the season. With the team at dangerously low numbers (only two substitutes), they cannot afford another injury. The team is ready to forge forward, acknowledging this new obstacle, but continuing to look ahead.
“She is definitely a key player for us, but we are ready to keep winning,” sophomore Kyleigh Guthals said. “We don’t look at it [small roster] as a setback, we look at it as a challenge. Not only does it challenge us to be better players, but it also challenges the other teams as well.”
Only time will tell just how much of an impact Griffin’s absence will cause. Though the major surprise thus far for McDonough is the team’s ability to be flexible in the face of adversity, which is promising, in light of their newest complication. Players and McDonough alike have their sights set on the Midwest Conference Tournament going into the back half of the season, an ambitious goal for a program that ended eighth of ten in conference standings the season before.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we can win the conference tournament,” Guthals said. “A lot of people have asked if I think we’re going to the tournament this year, and all I can think and tell them is that I’ve known from the beginning of the year we were going to go.”
With the team’s confidence unshaken and remaining members prepared for whatever competitors may throw their way, the program is on track to make a historical comeback. The team will go for their fifth straight conference win on Friday versus Lawrence University at 7 p.m. in the Memorial Gymnasium.