Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – So rare is it for a middle to lead a volleyball team in kills that it speaks volumes to the kind of season MacEwan's McKenna Stevenson is currently in the midst of.
With 78 kills in 10 matches, the fourth-year student-athlete is the only middle in the entire Canada West women's volleyball ranks that is pacing her team's production at this point of the campaign.
And, oh yeah, she's still doing what middles do best: block. Stevenson also tops the Griffins with 42 blocks this season, which is tied for third-best in Canada West.
"She's just coming into her own," said MacEwan head coach Ken Briggs. "The middles (Stevenson and Haley Gilfillan) have figured out the league and know what their potential is. Having Kylie (Schubert) set a really good game and give them opportunities to be one on one has really helped."
That's what Stevenson credits her success to, as well. Schubert has been a revelation in her first year as MacEwan's starting setter, sitting fifth in the conference with 298 assists.
"I just think with the more experience I have and a setter who throws the ball around a little bit more, she can find the middles better and more often," said Stevenson. "I think that's where I'm finding more success. She has the trust in me to put the ball away when we need to."
Stevenson leads the Griffins into their final action of the first semester this weekend when they welcome Winnipeg (Friday, 6 p.m. and Saturday, 5 p.m., David Atkinson Gym).
That setter-hitter relationship must be a good one for teams to find success. And in Stevenson's and Schubert's case, that's exactly it.
"She is one of my best friends on the team, so we just have a good connection as it is," said Stevenson. "We haven't done a lot of individual (drills), just us two, but definitely when it comes to practice time, we work on the communication with each other."
Of course, her production is due to Stevenson's talent, too. The Sturgeon County product often goes up against middles who are taller, but rarely is one of them faster.
"Her quickness and her vertical is really good for a girl who's only 5-11," said Briggs. "But she plays as high as the bigger middles. It's her quickness that separates her from the average middle."
Stevenson has blocked middles who've been as much as six inches taller than her, which is an underdog test she relishes.
"I'm known for being one of the shorter middles in the league," she said. "Because I don't have the height, I need to make it up with my agility and quickness. I wouldn't say easier, but I can close a block faster than other 6-foot-3 middles could, in my opinion."
Stevenson first came into the league in 2015 and made an immediate impact with her athleticism, landing on the Canada West all-rookie team. Since then, she's added maturity and a better understanding of the game.
"It's been a long process," she explained. "I was pretty intimidated my first year and to see that pay off being recognized as one of the best rookies, was comforting to me – I can play in this league. With more time playing in this league, I've learned to be smarter with my decisions on court.
"It's comforting to know I was recognized as a young buck, but now I'm stronger and smarter."
The Griffins have the luxury of trotting out Stevenson and Gilfillan – a 1-2 punch in the middle that forces opponents to game plan specifically for them.
"Since our first year, we've had a really good competitive relationship with each other," said Stevenson. "We find motivation through each other. If one of us is struggling, we'll try to help each other out, especially on court.
"We're very competitive as individuals, so if she's doing really well, I want to be doing really well just so I can match up with her. We've found a lot of success playing off of each other."
The Griffins are aiming to close out a solid first semester that sees them enter the weekend at 5-5 and in a playoff position. Winnipeg comes into the series at 3-7.
"I think we're a lot more comfortable with holding each other accountable this year," said Stevenson. "We find our most success when we're being disciplined in our game plan and in our defence because we are a smaller team, but we are athletic. We can put a ball away, we just have to make sure we're disciplined in our game plan and sticking to it the whole time. That's when we're finding our success."
That hasn't always been the case this season, though, so Briggs is hoping to see a disciplined series this weekend.
"We're really high and we're really low," he said. "I think that word consistency comes up all the time. Our outsides have to step up. They know that. This isn't a secret. They need to not only add some offence, but they also have to defend and that comes from game plan and preparation throughout the week.
"But really, we don't have to do anything new. We just have to be more consistent. We've done a really nice job of coming from behind, we've done a job of playing ahead. Now can we hold the middle ground? That's where we're at."