With the conference chases in the 2023 season coming to a boil, the NIVC looks at some of the programs in the thick of it as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
You get the sense that if Clemson volleyball coach Jackie Kirr had a chance to play a game of pickup basketball on a court with a 9-foot rim, she’d say no way and look for a regulation hoop.
If there’s a choice between the stairs and an elevator, she’s taking the climb. Or if it’s possible to get all the groceries from the car to the house in one trip, she’s muscling up with all the bags.
Tough assignments and imposing foes have never rattled Kirr’s resolve, beginning with her outstanding run at setter for Wisconsin from 2004-07 in the deep and imposing Big Ten and continuing through this, her third year running the show for the Tigers as they look to thrive in the difficult ACC. Currently 15-11 overall and 6-8 in league play, Clemson sits No. 66 in the NCAA RPI ranks, ready to wrap up the regular season with, of course, another mountain to tackle featuring four consecutive road matches.
“At that time when I was at Wisconsin, the Big Ten was by and large the best conference for volleyball in the country. I loved that as a competitor, where anyone can beat anyone on a given night,” said Kirr, who was a two-time all-American for the Badgers and still stands at No. 2 in program history for assists. “We talk a lot here at Clemson about the concept of honoring the game – the game doesn’t know who is supposed to win, the game doesn’t care about statistics or rankings or RPI. Playing the best you can and controlling the controllables and honoring the opportunity, well why wouldn’t you want to play at the highest level you possibly could?
“I enjoyed it as a player, the opportunity for upsets and then defending your home court, all that is so fun. On the coaching side, when I came to Clemson the ACC was solid but not what it is today. Two teams in the final four, it’s a powerhouse. Obviously with Louisville and Pitt, that‘s opened people’s eyes, but you go top to bottom, it’s a fight. That’s what the ACC is – and why wouldn’t you want to be challenged? It would be boring otherwise.”
Holding strong in 2023 is partially a function of Kirr clearly seeing a concern already brewing last year as the Tigers started to plan ahead. A young roster was trending to be even more so, and Kirr felt particularly anxious about giving setter Mckenna Slavik some concrete help after she agreed to come back for her fifth year. That prompted the Tigers to bring in two important transfers in defensive specialist Katie Culumovic from Mississippi State and middle Adria Powell from Ohio State.
“This time last year, preparing how our 2023 roster would look, at the time we were looking at 13 freshmen or sophomores with Mckenna being our only senior. We knew that as good as she is, we needed some experience around her,” Kirr said. “We were pretty active in the transfer portal to get her some support, both on and off the court. We found that with Adria, who had multiple Sweet 16 appearances, knowing we didn’t have a lot of depth in the middle. That was a main priority.
“By the time Katie and Adria graduated, those programs had done things they hadn’t in many, many years. I explained to them that we have a young team and I don’t just want talent coming in the doors, I want people who will take on the task of mentoring. They stood out in their leadership capabilities and desire to show up that way. Adria has single-handedly affected our blocks per set numbers; we were last in the league last year, now fourth or so. She’s anchoring the defensive end, and she’s always an option for Mckenna.”
Slavik has 731 assists this season, and Powell has come through with 167 kills and 125 total blocks. The fresh-faced crew has done its work as well, with freshman Kennedy Wagner adding 200 kills and 137 kills coming from both sophomore Mia McGrath and freshman Kate Simington. Junior Azyah Dailey leads the team in kills with 203.
Having found balance in who would suit up, the Tigers had the right makeup to handle some early adversity in conference play, which started with three straight losses. A certain amount of win-loss struggle is just the cost of doing business in the ACC, and Kirr’s priority is making sure her roster doesn’t miss the opportunity to do something useful with a setback.
“We really try to be in the moment, knowing how intense the conference slate is that we’re up against. We take it match by match, point by point, step by step,” Kirr said. “We talk about it this way, ‘E plus R = O’ – which is Event plus Response equals Outcome. You lose a match, well that’s happened and you can’t change it. The only thing you have control over is your response. We talk about how your either win or learn; maybe you’re lucky and do both, but you’re guaranteed one or the other. That’s where we’ve kept our focus.
“What did Georgia Tech teach us? We need to serve aggressively; if we don’t then teams will be in system. We roll into NC State, what did we learn there? We have to be better defending the right side. (Amanda Rice) is incredibly good, and while you won’t stop her, you need to contain her. Wake Forest, the first road match, you know they’ll be super gritty defending their home court. They did a great job running their middles, so we got the opportunity to see how to get better up the gut. That’s what this team has done, responded tremendously by processing what happened, win or lose.”
Friday’s match versus Notre Dame is next up for Clemson, but the regular season comes to a frantic finish in a six-day stretch (Nov. 17-22) featuring matches at NC State, Duke and Virginia Tech. The schedule got a little wonky because work has started on a $15 million construction upgrade that includes $10 million beefing up the volleyball site, compelling the Tigers to clear out of their home early.
If nothing else, Clemson will see if all the growth and savvy that’s been implied from 2023’s journey will show up at the finish line.
“So now they can start construction three weeks earlier, and we’ve known for a while that we’ll have the stress of being road warriors and figuring it out at different facilities,” Kirr added. “We’re immersed in that, and the team is excited and fired up. We stay grounded where our feet are.”
ON THE NIVC – Clemson played in the 2022 NIVC, an experience Kirr believed gave her players something special and memorable in the moment, as well as something to draw from in the future.
“We had a young team last year and felt like I wanted those players to have the opportunity to feel those pressure moments. Survive and advance; you’re traveling and playing opponents you probably haven’t seen, so it’s a quick turnaround. You find out who you’re playing and start scouting – it’s a different experience. We don’t have a postseason tournament in the ACC, and I think the NIVC gave us the opportunity to see what that feels like. Then you look at the opportunities for upperclassmen who have been working so hard all season, it gives that experience to round out their career. It’s an incredible opportunity for as many teams as possible to get that. People are recognizing how great our sport it, and you see it with blowout attendance records and playing on football fields … the NIVC is another way for people to come watch this incredible sport.”