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St. Francis volleyball player enjoying a blockbuster season

McKenna Kelsay of St. Francis goes after the ball during practice Wednesday in Wheaton. St. Francis is playing in the Class 3A state tournament this weekend.
McKenna Kelsay of St. Francis goes after the ball during practice Wednesday in Wheaton. St. Francis is playing in the Class 3A state tournament this weekend.

WHEATON – McKenna Kelsay has almost 800 more assists than anyone else on the St. Francis girls volleyball team but the senior’s value to the Spartans extends far beyond her distributing prowess.

Perhaps even more striking, Kelsay’s 246 digs are within 10 of libero Sam Dubiel’s team lead, prompting veteran coach Peg Kopec to call Kelsay the best defensive setter she has ever coached. For a program of the Spartans’ caliber, that’s a mouthful.

St. Francis will seek to add to its rich volleyball tradition Friday when the Spartans face Champaign Centennial in an IHSA Class 3A state semifinal at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena.

“I’ve been working on my defense a lot because I’m short, so I have to be able to play defense,” the 5-foot-8 inch Kelsay said. “It’s great to hear that all my hard work has paid off. I just try to get balls up.”

Kelsay grew up a talented soccer player and figured that would be her sports calling until watching her older sister, Kristen Kelsay, develop into a star for the Spartans’ volleyball program. The trajectory of her big sister, now a volleyball teammate of former Geneva standout Lauren Wicinski at Michigan State, swayed Kelsay to give volleyball a shot.

The sisters enjoy a tight relationship, and Michigan State is now among the college programs Kelsay is interested in, Kopec said.

“Anybody would want McKenna on your team,” Kopec said. “Academically, she’s going to help lead your team and [she has] maturity, personality and the skill.”

Kelsay’s blockbuster senior season – which includes 857 assists, 246 digs, 31 aces, 68 kills and 30 blocks – is all the more impressive considering she wears a clunky-looking brace, stemming from torn thumb ligaments two years ago and a subsequent re-injury.

“I’ve gotten completely used to it,” Kelsay said. “It doesn’t hurt anymore. A lot of people ask, because it’s a weird mechanism, ‘Is it weird when you set?’ But I’ve set with it now for like a year and a half all together, not necessarily in a row, but I’ve gotten used to it, and I’m used to setting with it.”

It’s been a trying season for the Spartans off the court. Kelsay, whose younger sister, Nikki, played for St. Francis’ freshman team this fall, said tragic circumstances leading into the season have brought the Spartans closer together.

Spartans sophomore Mary Boken’s older sister, Megan Boken, was shot to death in August while in St. Louis for a volleyball reunion at Saint Louis University. Kelsay said that unthinkable circumstance bonded teammates as never before.

“I think that made us grow so much,” Kelsay said. “Right now we’re all best friends, we all know each other so well. ... Through the hard things, I think that’s what’s has made us come together as a team and on the court.”

Kopec, the winningest volleyball coach in IHSA history, is seeking her eighth state championship as the Spartans look to improve upon last year’s third-place state finish.

“We’ve had a special season – great kids, and I’m very, very proud of this team, and very happy that they made it to the state tournament,” Kopec said.

IHSA Class 3A Girls Volleyball State Semifinals
Friday at Redbird Arena

St. Francis (35-5) vs. Champaign Centennial (36-4), 4:30 p.m.
Richmond-Burton (36-4) vs. Jacksonville (30-8), 6 p.m.
Of note: St. Francis and Champaign Centennial met on Sept. 8 at the Effingham Cross-Roads Classic, with Centennial and its towering front row prevailing, 14-25, 25-16, 25-22. ... The semifinal winners will meet in the state championship match at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. ... Sisters Maddie Haggerty (280 kills) and Molly Haggerty (268 kills) are the Spartans' top offensive weapons.

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