Sometimes the best cure for an injury is a strong dose of winning.
Just ask Sacramento State senior outside hitter Lauren Kissell, who helped the Hornets’ volleyball team to its highest regular-season win total in eight years en route to the Big Sky Conference Championship tournament that begins Thursday in Flagstaff, Ariz.
After finishing a painful eight-win season a year ago, the Hornets posted a 25-6 record (12-4 Big Sky) behind Kissell, who proved to be not only the team’s best offensive player after transferring to Sac State as a junior, but one of the best in the conference.
But the journey to the eight-team Big Sky tournament has been a painful one for Kissell and the Hornets.
“I tore my labrum (shoulder) in the fall season of my freshman year at Cal State Fullerton and played on it ever since,” Kissell said. “Last year it was a big struggle for me. I came (to Sac State) not playing volleyball for about a year. I was skinny. I had no muscle at all. Getting back on track was really hard, and my shoulder played a big part in that.”
Kissell played a season at Fullerton and one in her hometown of Stockton at San Joaquin Delta College before transferring to Sac State, where she played in just nine of the Hornets’ 31 matches.
“I have a new trainer, I work a lot on shoulder strength and I’ve overcome it completely, I think,” Kissell said.
The word “overcome” may be an understatement.
The 6-foot, front-row specialist made her presence known with a .311 hitting percentage in 2015, good for sixth in the Big Sky. Should the figure hold through the conference tournament, it would be the highest mark by any outside hitter in Sac State’s Division I era, dating to 1991.
Her rate of 4.17 kills per set was the team’s best and ranked third in the conference.
“This year has been significant for me in a lot of ways,” Kissell said. “It’s my senior year. It’s my last year of indoor volleyball, ever. It’s a little bittersweet, and I’m happy with how I’ve been playing. It’s always good to go out with a bang, and I think I am.”
As her coach Ruben Volta contends, Kissell’s offensive numbers were just part of the equation.
“I think it was also her competitiveness and just how she competed on the court. I think that sort of became contagious for our team,” Volta said.
For her efforts, Kissell was named to the All-Big Sky first team Wednesday. She was named the conference’s Player of the Week three times this season, the most by a Hornets volleyball player since Missie Stidham earned four in 2007.
After spending her early years swimming – a product of her self-described “lanky arms” – Kissell, 21, took up volleyball in high school at the encouragement of coaches.
As her indoor volleyball eligibility ends, Kissell – through redshirt eligibility – will be able to play on Sac State’s beach volleyball team in 2016 and 2017. Kissell said after college she hopes to play overseas or explore coaching. But for now, she’s focused on the Big Sky tournament.
“We have teams that we want to upset,” Kissell said. “We have some revenge (in mind). There’s so much to accomplish, and we don’t want this year to end.”
Kissell’s contributions were not the only ingredient to the turnaround season, Volta said.
“It’s been our attacking all year,” said Volta, the Big Sky Coach of the Year. “We’ve put up some really good attacking numbers, and we’re pretty balanced to be honest. Kissell’s a big part of our offense, but our setter Kennedy (Kurtz) really distributes the ball pretty well and we spread the ball out amongst four or five attackers, and I think that’s been one of our strengths, along with serving.”
Sac State, which qualified for the conference’s postseason tournament in 2008 and 2011, is seeded fourth and will take on fifth-seeded Northern Colorado in a quarterfinal Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Sac State beat the Bears in their only previous meeting this season.
Northern Arizona is the No. 1 seed and tournament host after posting a 15-1 Big Sky record. Sac State accounted for the Lumberjacks’ lone conference loss this season.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the last time Sac State advanced to the Big Sky Conference tournament. The team qualified in 2008 and 2011.
Big Sky Conference Volleyball Championship
Eight-team, single-elimination tournament
- When: Thursday through Saturday
- Where: Flagstaff, Ariz.
- Sac State: Hornets play Northern Colorado on Thursday, 3:30 p.m.
- Semifinals: Friday
- Championship match: Saturday
- Seedings: 1. Northern Arizona (host), 2. Idaho, 3. Idaho State, 4. Sacramento State, 5. Northern Colorado, 6. Eastern Washington, 7. North Dakota, 8. Southern Utah