After last year’s record-breaking 19-9 season, there were high expectations for Kennesaw State University’s volleyball team in 2016.
But a 1-8 start to the season worried the Owls and their fans, who saw the possibility of an ASUN Championship begin to fade. A competitive five-set loss to Georgia Tech on Sept. 8 made head coach Keith Schunzel reiterate a message of simplifying, staying humble and staying the course.
The very next day, KSU earned what would be the first of 12 straight wins, the longest winning streak in Division 1 volleyball until Lipscomb University snapped it on Oct. 21.
With that win streak, the Owls regained their confidence and optimism from the start of the season, losing just two matches in their last 19 outings.
This team became the first in KSU history to be crowned co-ASUN champions along with Lipscomb University, which also finished its season 12-2 in the conference.
“It’s obviously been a tough ride this year,” junior outside hitter Anaiah Boyer said. “This was not easy at times, but tonight it paid off, so I felt that was a pretty good experience.”
The final victory was against Jacksonville University, a match KSU won in three straight sets. JU didn’t go down without a fight, however, and even battled KSU to an 18-18 tie in the third set. The Owls benefitted from late rallies and swept the Dolphins 3-0 to win the match.
“We had just made history,” Liesl Engelbrecht, junior middle blocker, said. “Even if other teams in the future win conference championships, we’re always going to be known as the first team [to win].”
As Kennesaw celebrated its championship, Schunzel called the win “pretty emotional.” He talked about the journey and about the challenges the team overcame along the way. When Schunzel took over the program in 2012, the volleyball team recorded back-to-back losing seasons before things turned around.
“There’s been a lot of things personally and professionally that have happened the last four years,” Schunzel said. “From there to where we are now, it’s pretty hard to believe that we’ve come this far.”
Saturday was also the final home match for both seniors Kelly Marcinek and Fanise Cannon, who have been on the team all four years since Schunzel arrived.
“They’ve been the foundation of this team in so many ways the last four years, and we have brought in some very, very talented players around them,” Schunzel said.
Engelbrecht also commented on what it’s been like to play with Marcinek and Cannon over the years.
“They were both always there with encouragement and laughter, and both have different, unique personalities,” she said. “At the same time, they can come together and be great teammates and great people.”
Despite KSU winning the ASUN, the Owls will actually be the No. 2 seed in the ASUN tournament, since LU won the head-to-head tie-breaker.
The Owls will still receive a one-game bye in the ASUN tournament, which means the team will play Friday, Nov. 18, before the championship game on Saturday.
“It’s incredible. It’s almost surreal, it’s almost not set in yet,” Engelbrecht said. “But, next Friday we’ll play the semifinals, and [we] know this isn’t all we want.”
The path ahead won’t be easy, but after fighting back from a 1-8 record to secure the kind of special season that was anticipated, the Owls have proven they are a resilient group that is battle-tested for any obstacle.