In a world where there seems to be a “Be Kind” reminder at every turn, it can make you wonder when this message is a truly authentic one, instead of just the latest buzz word. Where the rubber meets the road and you see this in action, you realize it goes beyond just something we say at KO. In our case, it's where ball taps over the net.
When you enter the gym to watch the Kingswood Oxford varsity girls’ volleyball team play, you immediately feel a warmth and a certain unexplainable palpable energy. You just feel, well, happy.
You watch the match waiting for something to give, a player to get upset at a teammate for missing a set or even a parent jumping up in the stands to contest a play. Not here. Instead, you see wide smiles and countless high-fives as the team passes, sets, hits. Repeat. A freshman stands to wait to run onto the court to give a starting senior a break. There is no animosity, no glare for an underclassman taking off an upperclassman. Just a high five followed by a “You got this!”
It begs the cynical question…is this all for real or just part of “the game?”
It only takes a few more sets, blocks, high fives, and a team huddle to assure you that, no, they are the real deal. And then some.
Long-time Varsity Coach Scott McDonald said, “This group, this year, is a team-minded set of girls’. There isn’t any ego, and they have a really nice group dynamic. We have some new freshman in the mix, and they work them right in. And they are really good to each other when they make mistakes or when things don’t go the way we wanted them to. There is no finger-pointing, which isn’t always the case in sports.”
Don’t be fooled. They are as fiercely competitive as they are kind-hearted. And incredibly focused. McDonald said, “They believe they can do it. Their mindset is positive. They go into every match like they can win it. They realize more and more that so much has to do with the way they think about how they are playing -- the mental part of the game rather than just how good they are as a player.”
Assistant Coach Carolyn McKee agreed, “I have coached 15 years with Scott, and this is one of the nicest and most hard-working teams I have ever coached.”
The team’s record is 8-3. Based on current rankings, they are poised to make the postseason. The past few years they have made it several times to the quarter-finals but lost before progressing. This year, they are hoping to carry the momentum as far as they can. Four seniors will be graduating who have played together for three years which sweetens the pot that much more.
This past Saturday, at the school's annual Hewett Day where all fall teams play with a home field/court/turf advantage, the volleyball team won a big match against Kent in what McKee called, “A level of volleyball I haven’t seen played in a long time.” She continued, “This was the truest example of people working together and working other players into the lineup in addition to the starters. Each player contributing to the match made it that much more meaningful.”
Both McDonald and McKee admit they are “a little superstitious,” when it comes to looking too far ahead. One game at a time is the way to go. Co-captains Sydney Smith ‘21 and Kathryn Westrick ‘20 feel the same way. At the beginning of the season, the two bought socks for every single player on the team. Each pair had a different animal on them representing something about the play or personality of the player, and how this manifested itself on the court. Every member of the team wears them religiously every home match. They even presented Coach McDonald with wolf socks and Coach McKee trout socks. Westrick said, “Coach Mac is the leader of our pack, and he always has our back. A fish symbolizes good luck, and Coach McKee is our good luck charm.”
McDonald runs practices with a level of intention and deliberation to prep the team for upcoming matches. “We purposely mix things up so that people are used to playing with everyone and have to pivot and hit off a different setter.”
Westrick said, “We are off to a strong start this season. Our record is currently 8-3, and we are on track to qualify for the post-season tournament which is very exciting. Our success in games comes down to the work we put in during practice. One of my main goals for the season is to be a close team both on and off the court. I think the girls have gelled well together; you can always find us dancing in the gym, singing on the bus rides, or eating lots of food at team breakfasts.”
Smith agreed, “This team is very solid. We’ve played some tough games, but for the most part, everyone is doing very well! We have some new players who have become integral members of the team and are contributing a lot. We’re very excited about the postseason, and we know we can definitely do well. With a few more wins, we’ll definitely have secured a spot!”
In a sport where only six players from each team are on the court at once, it requires a certain stick-with-it-ness and posture whether things are going well or poorly. “Against some of the teams we play, it isn’t good enough to just do the things you are supposed to do,” said McDonald. “Pass, set, hit is only a start. Then you have to find a hole and look where other players are. There is higher-level thinking and awareness of what is going on that we are continuing to focus on.”
Both McDonald and McKee agree the sport itself is growing in popularity and see a huge uptick in student-athletes pursuing outside playing opportunities on competitive club teams. With the installation of the Kingswood Oxford Middle School volleyball program nearly five years ago, the JV and Varsity teams are seeing more of an influx of players and excitement matched with a higher level and quality of play. Other independent schools are seeing the same trend. As a result, the level of competition within the league is rising, making it important for teams, and players, to stay on their toes (or sneakers).
To stay current with this trend, KO recently installed a camera in the gym in order to record and livestream games and practices, which will give players access to the games and the ability to look at stats and review their play. This is set to be launched in the next few weeks. Until then, one dedicated father has recorded all of the games so players can replay them back at their leisure.
Not to be forgotten, the coaches enthusiastically acknowledged the volleyball parents who are the tireless cheering squad. Not to mention willing travelers. “We had just as many if not more parents at our Worcester game than a home one,” said McKee. “They all sit together and most importantly, encourage the girls together. It is wonderful to see such a supportive group.”
One thing is for sure. Socks or no socks you will feel lucky having the chance to step into the gym and watch this team play. Go get ‘em ladies!