Oct. 23, 2013
By Steve Cotton,
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. - Alexandra Mari Kiekover is a fine name, but as she was growing up it often made the Herd's freshman volleyball player cringe.
"When the middle name came out, you knew you were in trouble," said the middle blocker from Grand Rapids, Mich., who goes by "Ally."
"It was all just set in place from the time I was little that when you're doing something - school, work, sports, whatever - you need to try hard to do it as well as you can. If I tried to slack off on homework or chores, that's when the full name appeared."
What was instilled in Kiekover leapt out at Marshall coach Mitch Jacobs' during the recruiting process.
"The story about Ally is that she's a throwback," Jacobs said. "She's the norm from when I first started coaching. But things have changed so much that, today, she's unusual."
After some emails and video initiated Jacobs' interest in Kiekover, he went to watch her team - a club named Dead Frog-FaR Out - play in a tournament.
"That club was very good, with about nine Division I players," Jacobs said. "They're coached by a guy I respect very much both for the fact that he coaches them well and also that he demands a lot out of his kids.
"So I went to a tournament to see Ally, and because of all their talent she was about the last option in their offense. So she's not getting many opportunities unless they get a good lead or if nothing else is working, but she never took a single play off."
That is Jacobs' point about Keikover being unusual among athletes at that level.
"Those kids just don't exist today," Jacobs said. "Those kids have parents who say, `My daughter isn't featured, so we're going to find another team for her.' Or if they are on the floor, they're frustrated that the chances aren't coming their way.
"Not Ally. She was busting it on every play. She closed every block she could. She was up in the air for every set, even when they weren't coming her way. She was working hard, having fun and showing no signs of frustration."
Kiekover had passed an initial attitude test with Jacobs, but he wasn't finished.
"She knew I was watching her, which can be a factor in how a kid plays," Jacobs said. "So the next time they played I went and stood at a match about four courts away from them, like I'm watching someone else, but I still kept my eye on her the whole time.
"She went about it the exact same way. She hadn't been turning it up because I was there watching; she played that way because that's how she always plays.
"She's a middle and was getting replaced by the libero, but when she was on the bench it was her voice I kept hearing all that distance away, yelling and cheering on her teammates."
Jacobs was sold on Kiekover, and a visit to a Marshall volleyball camp sold Kiekover on the Herd.
"I loved the campus, I loved the girls from the team who were here," she said. "While I was here I was able to talk with the dean of the biology department, which is what I plan to major in, and saw that it's a strong program with great opportunities on the academic side.
"So in that one camp I found that Marshall had the comfortable, hometown feel I liked, the academic side was a fit, and a team and players I liked.
"Later, when Coach Jacobs offered me a scholarship I immediately said, `Yeah, I'm coming.'"
The start of Kiekover's volleyball career came on a rare day when, as a sixth-grader, she was bored.
"I called one of my friends to try to get her to go hang out for something to do," Kiekover said. "She said, `I can't right now. I'm about to go try out for the volleyball team.' I just thought, `I'm tall. Sure, I'll go play volleyball, too.'
"I had no idea what I was doing and was pretty awful at the tryout, but I was tall and I was athletic and I guess they just hoped that, as bad as it was, that they could maybe make some sort of player out of me."
It didn't seem unusual for a kid who, along with her older brother and younger sister, got involved in just about everything, be it sports, camps, clubs - you name it.
"My dad coached my soccer teams when I was young, so I guess that's how I got into sports to start with," Kiekover said. "I was tall and liked playing sports, so that naturally led to basketball and eventually volleyball. Mom wanted us to learn to swim well, so she put us on swim teams. We took tennis lessons.
"We were just an active family. Clubs, activities, camps, everything. Our parents encouraged us to be active and pursue our interests."
Kiekover has made an immediate impact for Marshall. She's third on the team in blocks and kills and leads the Herd in service aces. She credits her veteran teammates with quickly integrating the team's seven freshmen and one transfer with the six returning players.
"The veterans have been great," Kiekover said. "When you come in as a freshman, looking at two-and-a-half weeks of two-a-day practices, you're thinking, `I just need to survive this.' You have no idea what you're in for.
"But they helped us out. We call (senior) Dorothy Rahall, `Mama.' She was the one who was, right from the start, making sure all of us were included in everything, checking to see how we were doing, whether we were homesick, making sure everyone was okay.
"We were able to look to our seniors and veteran players as examples. They're all such huge impact players that you see what they do on the court, but we needed to see how they handle practice and preparation, how they manage time in getting school work and other things done, all the things that a freshman in college needs help with."
The Herd coach, though, knows that Kiekover's old-school attitude - the things he first noticed while watching her club team play in that tournament - has also dramatically eased the transition.
"The fact that she wasn't a focus in their offense probably kept other recruiters from taking a very long look at her," Jacobs said. "But I saw enough athletic ability that, when combined with her attitude and work ethic, made it an easy decision that I wanted her on our team.
"She's a throwback, her family is a throwback, and we'll take all of those we can find."