Head coach Todd Dagenais knew he had to sacrifice one of his major offensive contributors for the UCF Knights Volleyball team’s match against the SMU Mustangs.
Outside Hitter McKenna Melville was assigned to SMU’s outside hitter Rachel Woulfe.
“We figured we’re going to be giving up McKenna’s offense though by doing that,” Dagenais said after the match.
Yet, despite the assignment, not only did the Knights sweep the Mustangs, but Melville still managed to lead the team with 17 kills and 14 kills, a double-double.
“McKenna found a way to create make her own shot,” Dagenais said. “That’s what a great player does, they find a way to create and make their own shot.”
This season, McKenna Melville leads the nation with 578 kills and 657.5 points. She’s fifth in the nation in points per set and seventh in kills per set. She even has the team lead this season in digs and is Top 5 in blocks and service aces.
“That’s a six-tool player,” Dagenais said. “I mean, we haven’t had very many of those since I’ve been around, so having her on the team for the program’s sake has been wonderful, because she is that one that, if she struggles offensively, she’s gonna play defense and serve a block. If she’s struggling with her serving, she’s going to get you 15-18 kills and 20 digs or something.
“She’s gonna find a way to make the team better, even if she’s not on some part of their game.”
Melville hails from Eagan, Minnesota, a city that Jenny Maurer, associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, has visited on the recruiting trail before as the head coach of Bradley University.
By the time she arrived on campus, UCF volleyball defensive legend Jordan Pingel enters the picture. At the time, Pingel was entering her final season in a career that would finish with 2,262 digs, the first player ever to get over 2,000 digs and subsequently, the most career digs in program history.
She said that Melville was, as most of the freshmen were, quiet that first week, as she explained the team culture. By the time the two got to know each other more, she said Melville became her “backbone” on the court and one of her favorite people on the team. For Pingel, playing with Melville was like a “breath of fresh air” due to their many similarities and how quickly they “clicked.”
“Besides the fact that she is an absolute stud of a player, I loved playing with her because she just got me,” Pingel said. “I can remember so many times we would share a look on the court and we just knew what each other were thinking.”
Pingel also said that she knew that she could count on Melville to help her lead the team, a position that Melville was adept at, thanks to her upbringing with her mother, Kathy Gillen, Eagan High School Volleyball head coach, and Minnesota High School Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
“It does give me another insight, a little bit more of the ‘Whys,’ and I love to know the ‘Whys,’” Melville said. “Coaches dread it because I’m always asking ‘Why? Why are we doing this? Why? Why?’, but I think it makes you a tougher coach. I think my coaches have learned a little bit more about volleyball because of it and I’ve learned a little bit more about coaching because of the whole atmosphere that I have.”
However, while Melville was inspired by her mother’s example, she was inspired by Pingel’s as well.
“Jordan Pingel grabbed as many girls as she could and said, ‘Let’s go we’re getting on the train’” Melville said. “Now, hopefully, we can keep pushing, we can get keep getting more and more on the train.”
That train seems to be quite crowded, however, since Melville will be appearing in her fourth-straight NCAA Tournament alongside a team that is etching their names in the annals of UCF Volleyball history:
Fifth-Year senior right-side hitter Anne-Marie Watson and Middle Blocker Nerissa Moravec have the most (551) and second-most (489) career block assists and the second-most (576) and third-most (529) career total blocks in program history respectively.
Despite entering the transfer portal earlier this month, senior middle blocker Kathryn Wesolich is still able to play in the tournament, providing depth on the UCF bench. She has the 7th-most career block assists (296) and the 9th-most career total blocks (304) in program history, and is on the cusp of advancing a spot on both lists should she get playing time.
Senior setter Amber Olson currently sits 4th on the all-time career assists list, with 2,668.
Finally, Melville herself has the 4th-most digs in program history (1,344) and, in the final match of the regular season against Houston, passed Tyra Turner (nee Harper) for the 2nd-most career kills in program history (1,947).
Despite her historic marks in kills, Melville said that defense is “the biggest part in volleyball” and that it “wins games.”
“So many big-time hitters only care about getting kills, but [Melville] cares about all parts of her game and that’s what makes her such an elite level player,” Pingel said. “She’s got that ‘It’ factor, the defensive mentality of a high-level libero with the arm of an All-American hitter. Not many collegiate volleyball players have the whole package.”
Melville currently sits 204 kills away from the all-time kills leader, Renata Menchikova, and she announced on Sunday at the NCAA Tournament Selection Show Watch Party that she will be back next season with her extra year of eligibility thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside Olson.
BREAKING #UCF VOLLEYBALL NEWS:— Bryson Turner (@itsBrysonTurner) November 29, 2021
Outside Hitter McKenna Melville and Setter Amber Olson revealed to @ucf_marcdaniels at the @NCAAVolleyball Selection Show Watch Party that they will return to the Knights next season for their extra year of eligibility. pic.twitter.com/kESpoFTYKs
Dagenais said after the SMU match how “some major players” have been through this program before, referencing Turner and Menchikova. The duo played for the team back in the mid-90s, a time where the team won five-straight conference titles in the Atlantic Sun Conference between 1993-1997, with four straight NCAA Tournament berths from 1994-1997.
In terms of NCAA Tournament berths, Melville and the UCF Volleyball team have matched that stretch.
When Maurer first arrived at UCF back in 2016, she said she was sold into giving up her head coaching job with the prospect of turning UCF into a “perennial power” in volleyball, one that cannot be ignored.
“We knew that she was going to be part of that first recruiting class for me here at UCF and they were going to be culture changers as much as anything else,” Maurer said. “Not that the culture was necessarily bad, but taking it to the next level. She was going to be a part of that, regardless of where she was.”
Melville said that she eventually figured out she wanted to be a teacher and will be working toward her teacher’s license during her extra year of eligibility. However, before she knew all that, she said only wanted two things, she wanted to go to a big school and she wanted to make an impact.
Back when Melville was being first recruited, it was as a libero. However, a sudden growth spurt meant she essentially outgrew the position. Yet, Maurer was not dissuaded in her recruiting pursuit in part, because of the impact Melville has just by being part of the team.
“You just want her on your side of the net,” Maurer said. “She’s just the ultimate competitor, she loves to win as much as she hates to lose or vice versa and you just wanted her on your side of the net because she made her team better, she made her team win.”
The UCF Volleyball team (26-6, 19-1 AAC) will begin its 2021 NCAA Tournament Campaign in sunny Los Angeles against West Coast Conference at-large bid Pepperdine (22-5, 14-4 WCC) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET.