The Quarterback of Volleyball
By Bill Bunting
Associate Athletics Media Relations Director
Fear, excitement and anxiety over the unknown that lies ahead - all of them are emotions staring a freshman in the face when she steps onto the volleyball court in a leadership role for the first time. It's incredibly daunting when she's learning a new position.
The interesting thing is that four years later, the emotions don't necessarily change - what they stem from, however, can be quite different.
“Oh yeah, you can certainly have some of the same feelings,” said senior setter Rachel Kieckhaefer. “The difference is now I feel like I am more in control. I know what I have to do and what it will take to get it done.”
And while those emotions might certainly want to bubble to the surface sometimes, the setter has proven she knows how to get the job done as she was named a preseason All-SEC selection this year by the league's coaches.
It’s a far cry from that first match when a frightened freshman was forced to take on the leadership role in the middle of a match on the road.
Kieckhaefer was thrust into action as a freshman against Memphis when starting setter Ashleigh Shear went down with an injury. She set a season-high for assists in that match with 20 assists on the night. Kieckhaefer then showed other flashes of the future when she made the start against Kentucky in the next match and hit .417 with no errors and came up with 19 assists.
“Oh no! Don’t make me go in!’ was all I could think when Ashleigh went down in that match and had to come out of the game,” Kieckhaefer said. “But then you have to realize that no one else is going to do it for you, you have to do it yourself - so you just get out there and play.”
Since then, it’s been a continual progression for the setter as she has grown each season and taken on more of a leadership role with each passing match.
Following her freshman campaign, Kieckhaefer saw that she would be the go-to player at setter for her sophomore season and set out on her own for improvement. She went to a summer camp for setters, learning more of the technical aspects of the game to supplement her tactical approach to the game.
That led to a noticeable improvement in her performance and demonstrated to the coaching staff that the setter in training was ready to take on her new role.
“The biggest jump we saw from Rachel was between her freshman and sophomore years,” head coach Joe Getzin said. “She attended the camp for setters and was a much different player when she got back because of the immersion in the position you get at a clinic like that. The technical side of her game became routine and she was able to combine the technical aspects with her tactical knowledge of the game.”
Since that time she has shown steady improvement. And it’s not something Kieckhaefer really can pinpoint, but she does remember there was a moment where she realized she was pretty good at being a setter.
“I just remember being in the middle of a match and thinking to myself Oh wow, this game really isn’t that hard. This is exactly what the coaches have been talking about,’” Kieckhaefer said. “Something just clicked and I understood what they had been trying to tell me about playing the position.”
Kieckhaefer tallied 1,426 assists as a sophomore, setting the school record under the rally scoring system and helping the Rebels to the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. She followed that up last season with more than 1,200 assists to claim the top two spots in assists for a single-season in rally scoring and helped Ole Miss to a second straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Now, entering her senior campaign, Kieckhaefer’s goals haven’t changed. She wants to help the Rebels make it to the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season, but she wants this one to see the Rebels pick up their first win in the NCAA Tournament.
And while some of the emotions haven’t changed, the focus is now on how high can the bar be raised and not a fear of can the bar even be reached.
“The thing I keep telling the freshmen is that you are always in the middle of a growing process,” Kieckhaefer said. “You’re never to a point where you know everything and have seen every situation. There is always something to learn from and use to grow.”
Kieckhaefer and the Rebels will get that chance to continue to grow this weekend, as Ole Miss opens its home season with the Magnolia Invitational at the Gillom Center.
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