Kuhn snags Player of the Year honor as Grinnell volleyball loses in championship final

Senior+captain+Julianna+Roth+serves+a+ball+to+the+Illinois+College+team.+Contributed+by+Ted+Schultz.

Cory Hall

Senior captain Julianna Roth serves a ball to the Illinois College team. Contributed by Ted Schultz.

By Nadia Langley

langleyn@grinnell.edu

 

After being unable to complete their fall 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this past season was an opportunity for the Grinnell Women’s Volleyball team to finally play on the court together again. For those graduating from the college this year, it was also their last opportunity.

To hear more about the culmination of the fall season, the S&B sat down with teammates Kaylin Kuhn `21.5, Julianna Roth `22 and Olivia Jensen `22 to hear them reflect on their Grinnell volleyball careers.

A fifth-year senior planning to graduate in December, Kuhn knew she needed to come back and play this season with her teammates and return to the Midwest Conference (MWC) after their decisive win in 2019. “I felt like I had unfinished business,” Kuhn said.

In the 2019 MWC Tournament, Grinnell beat Cornell College in the semifinal and then defeated St. Norbert College in a close 3-2 game. The championship win was an especially important moment for the Grinnell team as they had entered the tournament as the decided underdogs.

With this win in the back of their minds, the team entered the 2021 MWC Tournament with pressure to perform as the second-seed team that they now were. Grinnell entered the semifinal game against Illinois College and came out the victor, with a three-match win. In the championship game against Cornell College, the Grinnell team lost the three-match game after two consecutive wins from Cornell.

“Taking two years off, a lot changes,” Kuhn explained. Rather than spending too much time being disappointed in themselves, the women’s team processed together and turned to focusing on improvement and making room for growth in the future.

While the Grinnell team didn’t leave with the championship win, there were still reasons to celebrate. Kuhn left the tournament as the Midwest Conference Player of the Year, as well as the new Grinnell College record-holder for the most career kills, achieved during the match against Illinois College.

“There’s no way I would have gotten this without my teammates and the skills they helped me develop,” said Kuhn.

Supporting one another as a team on and off the court is particularly important to all three seniors. The friend group that forms from the team and the culture of openness and support is what has made playing volleyball at Grinnell so worthwhile. Even with first and second-year players who had yet to play a season with Grinnell until this fall, that comforting aspect of the team as a family has not left over the years.

One important element of the team that has changed over the last two years is the level of ambition the newer players bring to the Grinnell team. “We’ve brought in some really great competitive players,” explained Roth. With extra focus on careful recruiting, Grinnell Volleyball is continuing to develop their program and cultivate a consistent winning team.

Jensen mentioned the hiring of Coach Eric Ragan `12 in 2017 as a major factor in this elemental shift in the team’s competitive makeup. “He’s done a great job with this program and recruiting a bunch of people who are not only super skilled but have great attitudes and mindsets that help us over perform,” she said.

Off the court as well as on, the newer players are playing a more integral role in promoting the supportive environment the volleyball team aims to maintain. At the beginning of their last season at the College, Kuhn and Roth, team co-captains, implemented a leadership council to bring younger players into moments of decision-making which were traditionally managed exclusively by elder players.

When asked if they had any advice for the younger players on the team as their season came to a close, Roth shared how she’s learned from her time playing at Grinnell that while being on a sports team is about the game, it’s also about so much more. “It’s the friendships, it’s the ability to self-reflect, it’s the ability to push yourself, it’s the ability to become mentally tough,” she said.

Kuhn reflected on the way the team has become a community for her, and how she hopes younger players see it as such. Besides continuing to trust one another and push one another to get better as people and as teammates, Kuhn hopes that her fellow players discover for themselves the true way to find success on the court. “The times that we do win is when we’re having the most fun,” she said.

Overall, the impact of their volleyball careers on Kuhn, Roth and Jensen is undeniable, and all are planning to keep volleyball in their lives somehow, even if that means coaching or playing in a recreational league after graduation.

“It’s hard to imagine playing anywhere else,” said Jensen.