Having just two seniors set to graduate this Spring, this was supposed to be just a rebuilding year for the volleyball team. With five freshmen and several other players now pushed to the forefront of the team, not much was expected from the team this season. Looking at their 1-13 official record, it would be easy to think this is exactly how the season has gone.
This, however, neglects that this year’s pre-conference schedule was intentionally designed by Coach Ashley McDonough to be the hardest in program history, with a stacked slate full of top teams from the region regardless of their competition level.
“The pre-conference W/L ratio meant far less to me than the ‘sink or swim’ development of our incredibly young team,” McDonough explained.
This combination of tough opponents and young players being immediately thrown into the fire, not a lack of talent, has produced this record at this point in the season. Sophomore and team captain Rachael Powell explains that the early parts of this season have been focused towards “building up chemistry.”
“With such a young team, it’s just about building a strong new dynamic,” Powell said.
Each new player fills a large role already this season, including freshmen Emily Mosher, who leads the team in assists, and Maddie Byrne, who is third in both kills and points. These new players have helped add a new level of play to the team.
“Instead of being a mainly defensive team, we are now able to be more offensive and take it to our opponents. This team is more well-rounded in that way,” Powell explained.
Not only is this team incredibly talented, it also just has more pieces to work with. McDonough stresses versatility among her 11 players, training them to be able to play multiple positions at high levels.
With more players, however, comes the risk that McDonough would not be able to focus an adequate amount of attention on each of them and their personal growths as players.
This is where junior Rose Griffin says the school has stepped up to develop the program further.
“We added two new assistant coaches this year, so we have more perspective for our play during practices and games.”
Not only this, but they are now able to work several different courts and drills specifically designed to help a player improve upon her skill level for that exact aspect of the game.
“It’s a lot easier to work on individual parts of the game, because we have multiple coaches able to help us and run drills with us,” Griffin explained.
All of the benefits to these changes in the program were hard to see for a while, but junior Kyleigh Guthals observes that there has been “improvement every day this season. Everyone is growing and we’re finally coming together.”
This growth ultimately translated onto the court during a game this past weekend against fellow MWC team Beloit College. The first conference opponent they had faced this season, the game against Beloit was a clear opportunity for the team to understand where they stood in the context of their conference. The difficult opponents were intentionally put on their schedule to help Knox improve enough to challenge for the conference championship.
Knox was able to come out strong and put the rest of the conference on notice, powering their way to a win over Beloit 3-1.
Powell explained that they were able to put all of their progress together in this game, producing a “consistently cohesive effort and getting the first win.”
This chemistry comes at a good time, as the team now enters the final stage before conference play begins next week. These games are considered the main part of the volleyball season, as the team hopes that a strong performance will help catapult them to success in the conference tournament. Many of the upcoming conference matches are home games, and coach McDonough suggests, “fill our stands at home games and you all can see for yourselves how we’ve improved,” and predicts a strong showing.
Guthals is confident they have only begun to scratch the surface of their potential.
“We’re already at a really high level, and there’s only up from here.”
McDonough agrees, explaining that last year was the start of a transition for the program, and that “this year is the birth of Knox volleyball” of the future.
Though it would be easy to look at the team’s roster and just imagine what great heights await them in the next couple of season, the team has not lost their focus on this season. They consistently remind each other that they can challenge for the conference championship and that they will be a power in this conference for years to come.
Powell emphasizes the team’s focus on this season and their goals.
“We want to show that we have a legitimate chance at the championship this year.”