This past weekend, the Knox volleyball team hosted a tournament for the first time since the athletic department can remember, going 4-0. Making the event even more special was the fact that it was named the Marissa Strong Tournament, in honor of sophomore Marissa Akers.
Akers played a key role on last year’s volleyball team before being diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes. This prompted the use of #MarissaStrong, a phrase used as both a show of support for Akers and an attempt by her friends to match her strength of character and will.
After taking time off from school to undergo chemotherapy at home with her family’s support, Akers is back and enrolled in classes this term. Though she is not able to take the floor with her teammates just yet, coach Ashley McDonough has made her an assistant coach for the season, allowing Akers to remain an integral part of the team this season.
Sophomore Maddie Byrne, who is roommates with Akers for the second year straight, loves being able to spend time on the team with Akers, “It’s really nice to have her around. I’d rather be playing with her obviously, but this is a close second,” she said.
In honor of this special weekend, several visitors traveled to Knox to be a part of the celebration, including Akers’ parents and former volleyball star Keiyah Triplett ’17.
Akers, who knew that her parents were coming for the tournament, was told by her mom that it was just because they had not seen their daughter in so long, maintaining the secret that McDonough had worked to protect.
“I wanted to keep tight lips on it because I wanted it to be special for Marissa,” McDonough said.
From the minute she found out about Akers’ diagnosis, McDonough has worked hard to support her in any way possible, from words of encouragement to providing motivation. After not being sure how the situation would turn out, McDonough cannot help but get emotional when thinking about the past nine months, struggling to articulate how thankful she is to have Akers healthy and back with the team.
“It means everything, it means the world. It means more than anybody could realize. The past nine months have just been very uncertain. Obviously we’ve had a lot of hope, but just having her here with us is just more than words for me,” McDonough said. “Even if she wasn’t sitting next to me and if she needed more time to recover, just having her here with us on the earth, means more than anything.”
Akers finally found out about the tournament being in her honor the night before the tournament began.
“I walked in and saw the posters there,” Akers said. “It just shows how supportive they were throughout the whole thing and how much they still care.” Akers said. “They tell me all the time how proud they are, but to actually do something like this and name a tournament after me, it means a lot.”
The support for Akers goes far beyond this one weekend, as the team has also started wearing purple ribbons on their shoes during games.
“People think that’s just because purple is our school color, but it’s really to support LLS [Leukemia Lymphoma Society],” Akers said.
Senior captain KyLeigh Guthals finds herself fighting harder on the court for Akers. “Everything I do this year is for her. The only thing that would make this year better is if she could be playing next to me,” she said.
With this extra motivation and the support of the spirited home crowd, Knox managed to fly through their four opponents this weekend, only dropping one set over the weekend.
The heightened level of play was apparent to Akers. “I feel like there was a lot more energy this weekend. Almost every time the team came into the huddle, someone would say, ‘did you see that play? We did that for you!’” she said.
For senior captain Rose Griffin, being able to play so well this weekend was a perfect tribute to Akers.
“Playing this weekend for Marissa meant more than you could imagine to our team, but it held an extra special place for me and KyLeigh because this is our last year with Marissa and she isn’t on the court with us,” Griffin said. “The fact that we were able to go 4-0 in our tournament dedicated to her means so much.”
The team has been performing at a high level all season, the five game win streak they have started with has certainly helped their overall record. At 7-7 with three more matches before conference play begins, the team feels that they will be entering conference matches with a wave of momentum. Even though McDonough knows how hard they have worked so far, she is still surprised at how well the team has performed.
“We beat a team last weekend that Ashley didn’t think we could beat. That was really exciting,” Byrne said.
Still, these signs of growth have been evident throughout the young season.
“Last weekend when we traveled to Minnesota, we played some fantastic competition and we did well. When you’re playing well against teams that are matched up with the top teams in your conference, I think it speaks to the readiness of the girls,” McDonough said.
McDonough is not the only one noticing the growth of the Knox program, as opposing coaches have had to change their game plans when facing Knox in recent years.
“The coach of Macalester commented on the change in Knox volleyball. She told me that a few years ago they saw us on the schedule and saw us as an automatic ‘W,’ but now we make them work for every point and even can beat them,” McDonough said.
After topping Alverno College in three sets to open the tournament, Knox did just that, defeating Macalester College in straight sets. On the second day of the tournament, Knox beat Rockford University and MacMurray College, only dropping a single set to MacMurray, their only lost set on the weekend.
There are many different reasons for the team’s success this season, including the collection of an impressive amount of talent, a freshmen class that came in ready to contribute immediately and the strong leadership of the senior captains.
McDonough, however, stresses that a significant amount of credit needs to go to the forming of her first official assistant coaching staff. Made up by Knox volleyball alum Madi Pierro ’17, Akers, senior basketball star Marko Protic and sophomore baseball infielder Brady Sember, McDonough recognizes that “all of them have really just added so much value. They focus on the micro and I get to just focus on the macro, which I’ve never had.”
Akers and Sember have taken on coaching the junior varsity volleyball team during practices during the first season the school has had enough players to form such a team. Forming their own practice plans ahead of time, McDonough trusts Akers and Sember to run the drills for these players.
Pierro and Protic, meanwhile, have been invaluable additions as well. After playing for McDonough the past two years, Pierro has brought an attention to detail to the bench that allows McDonough to focus on different aspects of the game that previously were more difficult to care for.
Protic, a 6’5” senior on the basketball team, has in McDonough’s words, “been my right hand for three years. He explains things to the girls in a way that they understand. Everything he’s put in, from practice planning to taking a strong leadership role, has made my job that much easier.”
McDonough admits to having a stronger connection with back row players, but has seen Protic take a leading approach to helping the blockers and attackers in the front row. McDonough knows that it is no coincidence that the team now has more blocks less than halfway through this season than they did all of last year.
Matching their win total from last season less than halfway through this season, the Knox volleyball team seems primed for a very competitive conference season. After a long battle with Hodgkins Lymphoma, Akers’ return to the team has helped motivate the squad, as they now play for a cause bigger than just victory: they play to be #MarissaStrong.