When you are trying to carve out fresh territory, it's nice to put tools in multiple hands.
Keith Schunzel came to the head coaching job at Kennesaw State volleyball in 2013, fully aware that the program had yet to find a real identity. The Owls won just seven matches in their first three years of existence (2006-08) and were still looking for the players and persistence required to make a dent in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Schunzel put all his resources and instinct into his first true recruiting class at Kennesaw State, and time has rewarded the entire process with an exciting and intriguing 2017 season. The Owls sit at 9-3 overall, with a 3-0 mark in league play, victories already in the pocket over the ASUN hammers of Lipscomb and Florida Gulf Coast and have earned themselves a No. 25 ranking in the latest VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC -- it's a burst of success and progress that this current group of seniors made happen out of willpower.
"We have seven seniors, six who all came in together. That whole class, it was our first real one from a full cycle, where we got here when they were juniors in high school," said Schunzel, whose team won the regular-season title at 12-2 last year and have appeared in two ASUN tournament championship games. "In so many ways, they are the foundation of what we’ve built this thing on, They bought into a vision we had when there was really nothing on the court to say it would happen.
"They did that on blind faith; every year we’ve gotten better, and they’ve worked their butts off. We got really lucky with that being our first class. There are a couple next-level athletes that you hoped would develop, and there are some foundation kids you hope to get to know and feel that they will come in and do things the right way. We caught lightning in a bottle; everyone panned out to be what we expected, and quite a few have turned out to be way better than what we thought."
There's a balance in that established group coaches usually wouldn't dare to dream for -- at libero, the Owls deploy 2016 ASUN defensive player of the year Katarina Morton, and setter Kristi Piedimonte has run the offense with precision for four years, averaging more that 10 assists per set this year. Anaiah Boyer is the program's only two-time all-conference first teamer and is a strong, reliable threat at outside hitter; Rachel Taylor leads the team in blocks.
With an added touch from junior outside hitter Maddie Jones (a 5-foot-8 springboard who leads the team in kills), the Owls are in that ideal space where their quality of play is consistent, and at times spectacular. There were certainly growing pains, such as the 10-19 finish for the 2014 team, but even that made sense as Schunzel leaned on the potential of his younger players right away.
"It was exactly what we thought it was going to be. The progression has played out so well in many ways; we’ve had some luck, but other things have come into it," Schunzel said. "Our first year (2013) we were handed a roster and did better than they had recently; in 2014, we brought in the six freshmen and five started all year. That was a challenge, being a program with very limited tradition starting five freshmen. People felt we were better (than the record), but we weren’t ready yet.
"Next year, we made the jump, beating Georgia Tech for the first time, and we were the highest RPI team in Georgia. In our third year we reached the conference tourney final ... we kept progressing, and this year is the best team we’ve had. One thing I’ve learned, you can’t go in somewhere, snap your fingers and expect something magical to happen. We've had two excellent recruiting classes and been able to build it organically and watch it grow."
The Owls will get their first taste of ASUN road competition this weekend, taking on Jacksonville (the other 3-0 team in league play right now) and North Florida. They can take inspiration from the defensive rigor they showed against Florida Gulf Coast, holding the Eagles to under .100 hitting, and the fact the team isn't hurting for options offensively.
"For us, the best way is to be as balanced as possible. We have four or five players who can put up 10-15 kills a night, and I feel pretty good about that," Schunzel added.