If everything had gone according to plan, McKenna Melville might never have recorded a single kill at UCF.
The story is now legendary: She was recruited as a defensive specialist out of Eagan High School in Minnesota, where she played for her mother Kathy Gillen, the all-time winningest high school volleyball coach in the history of the state of Minnesota. She won two state titles, was named Gatorade State Player of the Year, and was an All-American for her club team. She was also pretty good at softball.
But when she arrived on campus in the summer of 2018, she was some four inches taller than she was when she committed.
So head coach Todd Dagenais and associate head coach Jenny Maurer, who recruited Melville, had a decision to make: Keep her in the back row, or see what she could do on the outside. They chose the latter.
It worked out historically well.
Greatness comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s obvious from the start, like with a player like Michelle Akers. Sometimes it’s the result of the right circumstances coming together at the exact perfect time, like McKenzie Milton.
McKenna Melville’s greatness was something different. It may not have been obvious to everyone else before she arrived in Orlando in the summer of 2018, but it was a bottom-line expectation of her own right from the start, and she convinced us of it every night on the floor, from her first match in black and gold — a 19-kill, 16-dig effort against FGCU — to her last earlier this month.
From the moment she walked onto campus, Melville raised the bar for the program. In 2018, her freshman season, she led the Knights to a 27-4 record, including a 21-match win streak, with her first of four 500-kill seasons.
The Knights hosted an NCAA Tournament regional for the first time in program history.
Five years later, Melville began 2022 by receiving the Order of Pegasus, the most prestigious award any UCF student (athlete or not) can earn. Once she got on the volleyball court, she eclipsed several milestones and records, leading the Knights to a 28-2 record. Her efforts helped the team finish 22nd in the final AVCA poll, which is the team’s highest finish in the D-I era.
Melville became the first UCF Knights Volleyball player to be named First Team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches’ Association — a fitting way to cap a legendary career.
— UCF Volleyball (@UCF_Volleyball) December 14, 2022
Congrats to McKenna Melville on another amazing accomplishment‼️ pic.twitter.com/qMYtX79lUG
It is the fifth year in a row Melville was honored by AVCA. She was Third Team All-American in 2021 and an Honorable Mention in 2018, 2019, and Spring 2021.
To put Melville’s accomplishment into context at UCF:
- The last and only UCF Women’s Soccer player to be a First Team All-American was Michelle Akers in 1988
- Shelby Turnier in 2015 was the only UCF Softball player to be named All-American
- No player from Men’s Soccer, nor from Men’s or Women’s Basketball has ever done it
It adds to Melville’s legend. She led the NCAA by averaging 5.51 kills per set, shattering the UCF single-season record in the 25-point rally-scoring era.
This is on top of being unanimously named AAC Player of the Year, the third consecutive year she has won that award (2020, 2021 and 2022).
It is not only the greatest season any Knights volleyball player has ever had — it is up there as one of the greatest seasons any Knights athlete in any sport, male or female, has ever had.
Smasher of Records
Melville leaves UCF as the all-time leader in kills with 2,563, which also ranks 8th all-time in NCAA Division I Volleyball history regardless of scoring era, and second among players in the 25-point rally-scoring era behind only her fellow Minnesotan, AAC nemesis, and Northern Lights club teammate, Cincinnati’s Jordan Thompson, who led Team USA to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Melville is one of only ten players in D-I history with at least 2,500 career kills.
And although she did so with the aid of a fifth season of eligibility due to COVID, if you remove the 296 kills she accumulated in the abbreviated Spring 2021 season, she would have 2,267 kills, which would still be tops all-time at UCF.
Yet, Melville also put up historic defensive numbers as well by finishing with the 3rd-most career digs in school history with 1,650, the most by any non-Defensive Specialist or Libero player.
Melville also finishes 9th in school history in career service aces (123), 7th in solo blocks (66), and came only three blocks shy of making it into the Top 10 in total blocks.
Pre-Melville, the crown of the greatest UCF Volleyball player ever was a tossup between UCF Athletics Hall of Famers Tyra Harper and Renata Menchikova. The two teammates led the Knights to three straight TAAC (later A-Sun) Championships from 1995-97, and UCF’s first-ever NCAA Tournament victory in the D1 era in 1997.
Coincidentally, Harper and Menchikova led UCF to the same number of wins in their last season in 1997 (28-4) that Melville did this season (28-2).
Back during the COVID Summer of 2020, we ranked Harper as the 4th-greatest female athlete in UCF history, and highest-ranked volleyball player, because she played one more year than Menchikova did, earned one extra conference title, and increased her career winning percentage to 75% (114 out of 152) along the way. On that same list, we ranked Melville 20th after just two seasons.
If we made this list today, we would now rank Melville easily in the Top 5.
But her impact was far beyond just her individual accolades and records.
During the Melville era (2018-2022), UCF won five straight AAC Championships, made five straight NCAA Tournaments, and made three trips to the Second Round (2019, 2021, 2022). The Knights won 123 out of 146 total matches (84%), and against AAC opponents, UCF won an astounding 85 of 89 matches over those five seasons.
To put the Melville era into perspective, in the 20 seasons before her arrival (1998-2017), UCF had only won four conference championships with four NCAA Tournament appearances (2001-2003, 2014) with one appearance in the Round of 32 (2003), and posted a 223-233 overall record (48%).
But perhaps the one match that will go down as Melville’s most memorable performance was her last-ever match at The Venue against Houston on November 25th.
In a way, it was similar to Michael Jordan’s Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
The stakes were already heightened by the fact that it was the first matchup between two Top 25-ranked teams in the Venue’s history, let alone UCF’s streak of conference championships in their final match in The American.
Melville, as usual, rose to the occasion. Despite Houston knowing what was coming and focusing their defense and all-conference libero on her as they did in the first meeting, Melville still scratched out 14 kills over sets 2 and 3, giving the Knights a 2-1 lead in the match.
After Houston won the fourth set to tie the match, the Cougars jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the fifth and final frame. That’s when McKenna took over, with kills on four of UCF’s next six points, putting the Knights back in control. UCF and Houston would trade blows until 12-12, when UCF won the last three points to clinch the match and a share of the title.
She finished with 29 kills — one short of her career-high — and 11 digs, as the Knights won in five sets to clinch a share of the AAC title.
Melville’s teammate and fellow Minnesotan, Kari Zumach, put it best in the postgame following the Knights’ season-ending loss at Penn State in the NCAA 2nd round, calling her “the Michael Jordan of Volleyball.”
2022 was not just the Last Dance for Melville, but also for this era of UCF Volleyball, as the program moves to the Big 12 next year.
While there will be other great UCF Volleyball players, we will never see another player like McKenna Melville.
To learn more about Melville, check out Bryson Turner’s profile on her from 2021 here.