Oct. 18, 2013
In the first of our four profiles on the MSU senior volleyball players, Kristen Kelsay talks about her years in Green and White - and one of the most special games of her career earlier this season.
The score was 14-7 in the second set in favor of Michigan State. Senior setter Kristen Kelsay stood on one side of the net with her Spartan teammates as Illinois announced their substitutes. Sophomore Alexis Viliunas was announced first. Next was freshman McKenna Kelsay. That caught Kristen's attention.
"Oh, she's going into to serve!" Kristen thought.
Except Michigan State was still serving.
"Oh my gosh, she's setting!"
In to the match came McKenna, and on October 4, for the first time in their volleyball careers, the two sisters were on opposite sides of the net, competing against each other.
"I was just so proud of her," Kristen said. The Illini scored back-to-back points, with McKenna assisting on the first. , "Then, it was back to reality" said the senior. "But, for a moment there, it was pretty special."
This was just one of the many proud moments of Kelsay's MSU volleyball career. The senior co-captain is looking forward to enjoying her final season on a team that she knows she won't ever forget.
After years of volleyball practices and matches, the night Kristen and McKenna played against each other is one the entire Kelsay family won't forget, either. Kristen's MSU team got the best of McKenna's Fighting Illini, winning in straight sets 3-0, but everyone in the family felt the same pride.
Bruce and his wife Mary made the drive to Michigan State for the match, and he came well prepared to cheer both of his daughters on, sporting a split shirt that had Michigan State green on one side and Illinois orange on the other. It isn't unlike the Kelsays to show tremendous support for their kids.
Growing up in Wheaton, Ill., Kristen did not know what level of volleyball she could eventually play - but her parents were there for her along the way.
"They always pushed me enough to challenge me, but always let it be my decision," she said. "They weren't micromanaging parents, they knew that I had high standards for myself though." As she's grown older, she's "realized more and more" that she has great parents, and their advice and guidance is just part of the reasoning behind that.
Bruce said that there were a couple of points he would offer to his daughters. "It's a matter of A) you've got to be who you are, and B) if you want something badly enough, you have to put everything into it. You want to be well rounded, but you need to commit.
"Both of these girls decided early on to commit."
Volleyball wasn't a sport the Kelsays pushed on their daughters - their youngest, Nikki, 15, is a lacrosse player. Kristen and McKenna play it because they love it, and the connection they share with the sport has only made their relationship stronger and each other a better player. At St. Francis High School, Kristen led her team to a state runner-up finish in 2007 and won a national championship with her AAU team in 2009. McKenna followed up by winning a state championship at the same high school in 2012.
"It's been good that we're very close but not the same age," Kristen said. "We're best friends in the fact that we're sisters but we're just always there for each other and supportive of each other."
"They are so close," Bruce said. "To have two girls in the Big Ten, we feel so fortunate and very blessed."
Balancing act and life after MSU
Staying successful on the volleyball court is one thing, but excelling off the court creates for a difficult balancing act - one that Kelsay has managed extremely well.
Kelsay was a 4.0 student in high school and has all but carried that over into her college academic career. A psychology major, she has been named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, Academic All-Big Ten, and a recipient of the MSU Scholar Athlete Award. In addition, she was a Harold & Raynor Shnider Office of the Provost Award winner for top academic excellence, community involvement, and leadership ability, and plans on completing the Professorial Assistantship program at MSU as one of the top 1% of students in the nation.
How does she do it?
"We get a lot of support," Kelsay said. "The people behind the scenes don't always get the thanks." Kelsay credited the people at the Clara Bell Smith Center for supporting her passions and strength, as she excels in both athletics and academics.
"Academics have always been important to me and that was a big reason why I chose Michigan State," she said. "They offered me a lot academically. There were opportunities I maybe wouldn't have had if I had gone a different school."
The MSU volleyball coaching staff - head coach Cathy George and assistants Russ Carney, Mike Gawlik, and Krista Rice - has had a tremendous influence on her growth as a person, academically and athletically.
"Our coaches are really great," Kelsay said. "I know Cathy and our whole coaching staff want each of us to graduate as a successful volleyball player, but want you to be a successful woman.
"They want you to walk into the world and have not only the academics, but to be ready to go and be a good person. That was something I was looking at Michigan State, that family atmosphere was huge."
After leaving MSU, Kelsay plans on pursuing something within the psychology field. She's already met with the sports psychology department on campus, and is looking into getting her Master's degree in that area.
"I haven't really made up my mind about what I want to do," she said. "Compared to freshman year, I feel like I'm way more in a place where I know who I am."
Special Spartan team
Kelsay said this year's MSU team is her favorite volleyball team that she's ever been on, and it's easy to see why.
MSU is 17-2 overall, ranked No. 5 in the nation in the AVCA Coaches Poll, and sits atop the Big Ten standings. The Spartans knocked off then No. 1 Penn State on the road - the program's first-ever win against a top-ranked squad - and defeated another top-10 team in Nebraska at home.
"We have a lot of talent but we also have a lot of physicality," Kelsay said. "In years past, we've just had one or the other, but because we have this physicality this year, and we added talent to last year, that's something I think has suited us well."
The 5-10 setter is a large part of her team's success. She ranks ninth in the Big Ten in assists per set with 7.27. She leads her team in assists with 442 and is on track to lead MSU in that category for a third straight season. She continues to ascend in the MSU record books - her 2,636 career assists ranks sixth in school history. More importantly, she's a captain of the team for the second straight season, and helping put together what the team is hoping will be a very special season in the program's history.
She credits the support staff around her for her success.
"All the support has molded me into who I am," she said. "It's kind of crazy to look back to freshman year and then compare it to now in my senior year and see the changes that I've come thorough as a leader and a player."
Included in that group are her teammates, which Kelsay said she wouldn't change for the world.
"I just think that we're all here for the right reasons and we're all here for each other," she said. "I think that's something, when you see us play, you can see that, and I think that's what makes this team special."
Kelsay has reaped the benefits from early success in the Big Ten season, but knows that there are no guarantees, especially only seven games into conference play. The Spartans still have to face many tough opponents, including Michigan twice, Penn State at home and Nebraska on the road.
"I'm excited for the ride we're about to take," she noted. "I know we're going to have some bumps and bruises along the way but that's why the Big Ten is so special.
"I feel incredibly blessed to be here and I don't want to take a day for granted."
- Nick Barnowski, MSU Athletic Communications