High-SchoolVolleyball: USA Volleyball

By Walter Villa

John KesselCourtesy of Eric HodgsonMcKenzie Kessel has been all over the world with her dad, but there's something special about their Father's Day tradition. "It's magical," she says. "Whenever we talk about Vail, everyone lights up."

Every year on Father’s Day, McKenzie Kessel and her brother Cody paint their dad’s car.

“We’ll write: ‘No. 1 Dad’ or ‘Best Dad in the World’ with an arrow pointing to the driver’s seat,” McKenzie said. “Or we’ll say: ‘Honk if you love your Dad.’

“It still makes my dad light up. He leaves it on his car until almost the next Father’s Day.”

John Kessel
Courtesy of John Kessel"He leaves it on his car until almost the next Father's Day," McKenzie Kessel says of her dad's decorated car.
McKenzie and Cody’s dad is John Kessel, the director of sport development for USA Volleyball who is a divorcee and their primary caretaker.

McKenzie, a 5-foot-9 libero, won back-to-back state titles the past two years at Cheyenne Mountain (Colorado Springs, Colo.). She finished her senior year last month and is preparing to play Division III volleyball at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine) this fall.

Cody, 20, is a 6-6 outside hitter at Princeton University. As a freshman this past season, he used his 39-inch vertical leap to lead the Tigers in kills and points.

“People see that we play volleyball and say, ‘Oh, of course, Kessel family,’ ” said McKenzie, 18. “But he never pushed us to play. I quit club volleyball two years ago because I wanted to play high school lacrosse, and he was totally supportive.”

McKenzie was 3 years old when her parents split up. Since then, she, Cody and John have called themselves the “Kessel-ateers”.

Cody said his bond with his sister has only strengthened in recent years.

“We’re best friends, through and through,” Cody said. “Maybe the divorce contributed to (our closeness), but I don’t think it will ever change in my entire life.”

It’s a matter of trust

Both siblings credit their father for providing a loving and stable home.

McKenzie said her father is the most patient and trusting person she’s ever met. For example, he let his kids decide on their own rules and curfews, which were more flexible than that of their friends.

“He is very respectful of our thoughts and, because of that, we never want to disappoint him,” McKenzie said. “Luckily, we’ve never gotten into trouble.”

He is very respectful of our thoughts and, because of that, we never want to disappoint him. Luckily, we've never gotten into trouble.

--McKenzie Kessel on her dad, John Kessel
John has taken his kids to Fiji, Egypt and Canada, and they plan to go to Germany this summer. When he is invited to teach at a volleyball clinic, the deal that he typically makes is that he will do it for free as long as they pay for his kids’ flights.

An example of the family’s love for travel and adventure came in February of 2002, when the three were watching the Salt Lake City Olympics on television. Cody, then 10, remarked about “how cool” it would be to attend since it was fairly close.

The next day -- without anything having been planned -- the Kessels drove to Salt Lake City, stayed with friends and bought tickets to hockey and cross-country skiing from scalpers.

For John, each trip is an opportunity to share with his kids whatever information comes to mind, from volleyball strategy to the formation of clouds.

John’s mother was a first-grade teacher, and that is the way he parents and coaches. He rewards effort over outcome.

“If a child misspells a word, you don’t ask him to drop and give you 20 (push-ups),” John said. “You teach him how to spell the word correctly.

“John Wooden once said that if you want to learn how to coach, learn how to teach.”

John is not always in teacher mode, though. Sometimes being a parent means comforting a child. And when McKenzie texts her dad that she is having a bad day, he makes sure to bring home her favorite ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s Coffee HEATH Bar Crunch.

King of the mountain

But while the Kessels have bonded over everything from traveling to dessert, this is still a volleyball family at its core. And another Father’s Day tradition -- beyond the car paint -- is the King of the Mountain outdoor volleyball doubles tournament, held each year in Vail, Colo.

This is the 40th annual tournament, and John, 59, has been playing since the beginning.

McKenzie Kessel
Courtesy of Tammy KingJohn and McKenzie Kessel have finished as high as third at the King of the Mountain.
But in 2001, he convinced organizers to add Father/Son and Father/Daughter divisions, from 18-under to 12-under.

Last year, more than 500 teams competed in all divisions, including open, seniors, co-ed and masters.

The tournament runs Friday through Sunday and features a free junior’s clinic.

John and Cody have won the Father/Son division three times, and John and McKenzie have finished as high as third in the Father/Daughter competition.

“It’s cool because it is a tournament my dad has done since he had long hair and thick glasses,” McKenzie said of her father, who is 6-3 and played club volleyball at Colorado College. “He is getting older, for sure, but he has so much court savvy that he can make a winning shot without jumping.”

McKenzie said the tournament is one of the highlights of her summer. And even though this is the first year Cody will be unable to attend -- he will be playing in an international competition in Japan -- it still figures to be a special weekend.

“My friends come up and play doubles, my dad does clinics -- every day there’s something,” McKenzie said. “It’s magical. Whenever we talk about Vail, everyone lights up.”
Audriana Fitzmorris wanted to jump up and celebrate, but, out of respect for her friends, she showed no emotion.

Fitzmorris is one of 24 volleyball stars from around the country who spent last week in Colorado Springs, Colo., competing for 12 roster spots on the U.S. Girls’ Youth National Team.

After the decisions had been made, the coaches brought the girls into a room.

“They gave a speech and then they flipped over a whiteboard that had the names and numbers of the girls who made the team,” Fitzmorris said. “I scanned it very quickly and saw my name. I just stared at it for a long time. I was completely overjoyed and pleasantly surprised. I’m really happy because it’s such an honor to represent my country.

“But I also felt really awful for the girls who didn’t make it.”

Fitzmorris, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker, said there were a few girls who cried -- and that includes tears of joy from the ones that made the cut.

Fitzmorris, 14, is the youngest girl on the team. She recently graduated from the eighth grade at Prairie Star Middle School (Leawood, Kansas).

She said she was excited to play for Team USA at the NORCECA Girls’ Youth Continental 18U Championship at Hato Major, Dominican Republic from June 24 to July 2.

However, the tournament, which serves as a qualifier for the 2013 FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championships, has been indefinitely suspended due to problems faced by the Dominican Republic in hosting several major events within a short timeframe.

The postponement may work out well for Fitzmorris and her teammates who otherwise would have missed playing the Junior National Championships (also known as the Junior Olympics) with their club teammates June 28 to July 7 in Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s disappointing (about the postponement) because I wanted to play immediately,” Fitzmorris said. “But I also wanted to play the Junior Olympics with my club team. Hopefully, now I can do both.”
By Walter Villa

Audriana FitzmorrisCourtesy of Brent Lilley"I sometimes go over there and make sure they are OK," Audriana Fitzmorris says of her opponents. "I apologize and let them know that I wasn't aiming for them."

Audriana Fitzmorris, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker, is a straight-A student and a part of the USA Volleyball pipeline. Her coaches describe her as a “once in a lifetime” player and rave about her unselfishness and maturity.

And, oh yes, she’s only 14.

Fitzmorris, who last week graduated from eighth grade at Prairie Star Middle School (Leawood, Kan.), has an exciting summer lined up.

She is the youngest of 24 athletes invited to participate in the U.S. Volleyball Girls’ Youth National Team tryout, which starts Thursday and runs through June 3 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Fitzmorris is set to graduate high school in 2016. Every other girl on the training team is in the class of 2014 or 2015.

“I’m a little surprised (to be invited) because I knew a lot of older girls were going to be there,” Fitzmorris said. “But I am overjoyed and excited.”

Of the 24 girls invited to Colorado, USA Volleyball will select 12 to take to the Dominican Republic on June 24 for the NORCECA Girls’ Youth Continental Championships.

The U.S. will use the tournament to try to qualify for the 2013 FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championship.

Fitzmorris, who also plays basketball when time permits, comes from a tall and athletic family. Her mother, Maria Luisa, is 6-1. A native of Lima, Peru, she played volleyball and basketball for her national team and competed in Brazil’s pro basketball league.

Fitzmorris’ father, Michael, is 6-7. He played college basketball at UC Irvine and professionally in Sweden.

Of the couple’s four children, the second oldest, Alex, 20, is the only Division I athlete to date. The 6-4 middle blocker played her freshman season at Arkansas and her sophomore season at Boston College, where she was third on the team in blocks last year.

Fitzmorris also has two brothers: 6-7 Michael, 21, who attends Alabama and is an avid rower; and Keenan, a 6-1 basketball player who just finished sixth grade.

"You expect her to be the best hitter, but she's also the best passer and everything else. I've coached for 30 years, and she is the most elite athlete I've ever worked with, boy or girl."

-- Prairie Star coach Bob Dickerson
Fitzmorris, though, appears to be the best athlete in the family. In fact, she’d be the best athlete in most families.

“What is most unusual about Audriana is that for someone her height, she is extremely coordinated and agile,” said Bob Dickerson, who coached her at Prairie Star last season.

“I’ve never seen someone that tall have that kind of body control. She is a good jumper with an active arm. Her height gives her angles, and she’s a smart kid.

“You expect her to be the best hitter, but she’s also the best passer and everything else. I’ve coached for 30 years, and she is the most elite athlete I’ve ever worked with, boy or girl.”

Dickerson said watching Fitzmorris play against kids her age is like watching a woman against children.

“A couple of times, she hit the ball so hard that it (struck an opposing player) in the face,” Dickerson said. “The girl started bawling. I told Audriana, ‘She’ll be OK. Just keep swinging.’ ”

Fitzmorris said she feels bad for her opponents under those circumstances.

“I sometimes go over there and make sure they are OK,” she said. “I apologize and let them know that I wasn’t aiming for them.

“I know I have to be aggressive, but I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be over-aggressive.”

Those sentiments don’t surprise Michelle Abshire, who was Fitzmorris’ first coach at the Kansas City-based club Mid-America Volleyball, known as MAVS for short.

With Fitzmorris anchoring the team, the MAVS finished fifth in the nation at the 2010 Junior Olympics (12-under). Last year, the MAVS came in second (13-under).

“She was a huge part of our teams -- she did it all for us,” Abshire said. “A lot of teams take their big middles out and replace them with a libero when they get to the back row. But Audriana played all the way around.

“She has a great jump serve and plays terrific defense. She’s such a talented athlete and works so hard -- she deserves to stay in and play all the positions.”

Talent aside, Abshire said it’s Fitzmorris’ personality that makes her a true winner.

Fitzmorris is quiet, her coach said, but not shy or timid. She is not afraid to call for the ball and is a team captain and leader.

“She is one of the most humble players I’ve ever met,” Abshire said. “Most players who have the number of kills that she has would want to showboat. But that’s just not Audriana.

“There really isn’t a selfish bone in her body. She wants her teammates to succeed, which is why she is so well-liked.”

Some of the people who like her most are college recruiters. You can bet she is on their radar already, and the amazing part is that doctors recently told Fitzmorris she’s not yet done growing.

But before she picks a college, Fitzmorris and her family still have to figure out what high school she will attend.

Perhaps the family can use the high school choice as a practice run for what is sure to be difficult college decision in a couple years.

Fitzmorris, whose favorite subject is math, is interested in studying medicine and said she knows what she seeks in a college.

“I want it to be diverse,” said Fitzmorris, who understands Spanish but would like to improve her ability to speak her second language. “I also want a college that has a good balance between academics and athletics.

“I like being a student-athlete. I’m a hard worker, and when I put my mind to something, I’m really focused.”

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