By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The game was supposed to be fun with a little competition mixed in. That’s the general idea behind students vs. staff volleyball games like the one Vicky Groat stopped to watch during Battle Creek’s Catholic Schools week a few years ago.
But the tallest girl on the court, eighth-grader Amanda McKinzie, showed a little something extra that day – a desire the seven-time MHSAA champion coach continues to admire.
"There were some other kids in her class that were playing that were volleyball players, but (I thought) ‘She’s got it,’” Groat remembered last week. “She understands the game. She knows it’s joking around. But there’s that serious side to her, that competitive side. That’s cool.
“I remember sitting back (later), standing there going, that’s the competitive drive that I saw in her in eighth grade. Hopefully that continues for years to come.”
The 6-foot outside hitter enters the final two weeks of her high school career tonight ranking among the MHSAA all-time leaders in kills and aces, and as one of 10 candidates for this season’s Miss Volleyball Award handed out by the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association. The Second Half High 5 recipient this week has helped the Tigers to the last three Class D championships and is a big part why they are considered the state’s best team in any class as they pursue one more title before she heads off next season to Virginia Tech.
That’s a mouthful. But this is a season – and career – that McKinzie began preparing for in first grade.
Like most girls who come through the Tigers’ program, that’s when McKinzie first became part of the St. Phil volleyball family. The eventual stars start early and follow the varsity growing up, attending MHSAA Finals and having their shirts autographed by the players they look up to and someday might replace.
By her admission, McKinzie looked up to everyone who played on those teams – although it was hard for the emerging hitter to not pay special attention to Allison Doyle, who graduated from St. Phil in 2006 and went on to an All-America career at Western Michigan.
The game that sticks out most was Doyle’s last, a five-set loss to eventual Miss Volleyball Alisha Glass and Leland in the 2006 Class D Final. St. Phil has won every Class D title since.
“I just remember that game, how crazy it was,” McKinzie said. “I never really thought, ‘Wow, some day that’s going to be me.’”
But Groat had an idea. She’d watched McKinzie during summer camps and as the junior high athletic director, and brought the then 5-9 hitter up to varsity as a freshman. McKinzie was a little erratic at that point – “I’d have games where I’d hit one out, get frustrated and keep swinging harder and it would not go where I wanted it to,” she said – but has turned into a kill machine.
She’s connecting on 49 percent of her kill attempts for the second straight season – a far cry from her 22 percent efficiency as a freshman – and is approaching her best season of 699 kills. She already has posted career highs of 429 digs, 41 blocks and 130 aces.
And it’s not like she’s built her numbers against meager competition. No small-school team in any sport takes on the biggest powers like the Tigers do each fall. They are 68-2-1, with those losses coming during the second weekend of the season to Class A No. 9 Livonia Churchill and then two weeks ago to Class A No. 1 Richland Gull Lake after St. Phil had beaten the Blue Devils the week before. The tie came against Class B No. 6 Wayland.
McKinzie also played basketball through her sophomore season, and started, before focusing solely on volleyball. The drive to win that Groat noticed long ago stretches into just about everything, even “the little things.” McKinzie joked that she’d like to win more at ping-pong – but then explained, ‘No, I’m pretty good at that too.”
That scenario mentioned by McKinzie above – the shots sailing beyond her control – still happens sometimes. But she’s learned control. She’s tough to stop because she’s so powerful. Groat said “she’s kinda mean” before laughing immediately. But the confidence McKinzie has built over the last four seasons is obvious every time she takes the floor.
“I just feel it. I kinda get nervous in a way, a nervous exciting feeling,” McKinzie said. “That’s my favorite way to play.”
PHOTO: Battle Creek’s St. Philip’s Amanda McKinzie blocks a hit during last season’s Class D Semifinals at Kellogg Arena.