Women's volleyball: Northern Illinois' Kaylee Martin already making an impact in her first season
Volleyball has been the biggest part of Kaylee Martin's life for quite some time now, and through the years she's always managed to adjust quickly to the next level.
Now a freshman at Northern Illinois, she has had much success in Division I.
Just a week into her first season at NIU, Martin is already an anchor on the court — she never leaves, and is in every rotation.
"I didn't anticipate that," Martin said of the immediate starting spot. "I knew I really had to fight and work for it. I know that we have 4 outsides, so it wasn't going to be easy, and it wasn't going to be handed to me.
"I just knew that I had to keep working and I needed to be mentally strong so that I didn't let mistakes get to me and I could just bounce back quicker. Preseason was definitely a grind, and you just have to fight through it."
At the Division I level, she's finding out that she has to be a bit craftier than usual when it comes to putting away a point at the net.
"I'm so used to hitting down and bouncing balls every single time, and here I have a big block in front of me every time, and the defenders are so good," Martin said. "The biggest difference that I've made is just hitting high and using more shots, and not going for the straight-down kill every single time."
But she takes just as much pride in her back-row play. Knowing that she had to get better if she wanted to achieve her goal of playing at the highest level in college volleyball, her defense was a source of improvement prior to college.
And it's paid off, making her indispensable in the Huskies' back row.
"Kaylee is at the point where we're telling her to just go play," NIU coach Ray Gooden said. "She's going to start to understand that other teams are probably going to serve her a lot, they're going to key on her for different things. But in the same sense, she's been in that spot before, so she's just got to use her instincts to come back and help her out."
And that's where all the hours spent on the volleyball court growing up have really come into play for Martin. Those instincts have been honed to a razor-sharp point through all of her volleyball experiences, and have come in really handy as she tries to get used to Division I hitters.
"It's a lot quicker, a lot harder to read, so you just have to trust yourself," Martin said. "You only have a quick second to watch a hitter's shoulder and her eyes and figure out what she might do. So you make sure to stick to your platform, and make sure you're not moving when they're swinging, or you'll get nailed.
"It's just getting the ball up and keeping the play alive. You can't worry about the perfect pass; you get in the right spot and then trust your teammates and the system."
The biggest hurdle so far has been in the win column. The Huskies have started the season 0-4, and that's taking some getting used to for Martin, but that's something that likely won't last for NIU. Martin is one of six freshmen on the 14-player roster, and she knows it's going to take a little time for the Huskies to get in sync and find their groove on the court.
"It's great, coming in with a big class," Martin said. "I mean, the upperclassmen probably don't like it as much, but I personally love it. It's great to not feel alone, and to have other people that are just in your boat too.
"Everyone is making it such a good transition; all the older girls are helping so much. I don't feel like I'm ever alone. If I make a mistake, they're talking to me or they're helping me, not getting down on me. We're really a team, and with last season, they really had a great family bond, and I feel part of it, and that they all want me here."
Last season is something Martin and her classmates want to replicate. With seven seniors on that 2016 squad, NIU won the MAC regular-season and tournament titles, amassing a 25-6 record — including 15-1 in conference play — and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
After watching that last group of seniors grow into the best team in the MAC, Gooden believes Martin and her classmates could be the next big core to lead the Huskies to big things.
"I think there's flashes of positive right now, and now it's just a matter of keeping that light to shine as bright as it can for as long as it can," he said. "It's just the experience; we talk about our kids with experience -- we just graduated a whole bunch of kids with experience, and we have a lot of kids now without a lot of experience. So you have to learn and understand every single opportunity is exactly that: an opportunity to try and improve and get better."
And that attitude is what has Martin and her new teammates trying to grin and bear it through the rough start to 2017. While losing is never easy for someone as competitive as Martin, she knows that the lessons the young Huskies learn now will be a valuable resource as they grow together.
"Sometimes we're not always working together, so we just need to keep working as a group of six out there, and even when it's not going well, we just need to keep going through it and fight out of it," she said. "Get that quick sideout, then get the next point to build a lead, then maintain that lead and don't panic when the other team goes on a run. We're just now getting our first contact with other teams at this level, and we'll keep getting better. It's early in the season, I'm young, a lot of girls are young out there, and we're just trying to adjust to the next level of playing.
"But I love it here, and I think that I'm transitioning OK, and I'm just having so much fun."
This article is written by Ty Reynolds from Daily Gazette, Sterling, Ill. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.