By STUART GROSKREUTZ
Regardless of how this week’s state tournament plays out, Kayla Zeno will leave an indelible mark on the Stillwater volleyball program.
The versatile senior setter joined the varsity as a freshman when the Ponies struggled to a 8-19 record while posting just one Suburban East Conference victory. Zeno hasn’t done it by herself, but has played a key role in Stillwater’s 69-19 record the past three seasons – setting school records for single-season victories with 20, 23 and 26 (and counting) – each year.
After signing a National Letter of Intent on Wednesday to continue her volleyball career at Northern Illinois next year, Zeno and the Ponies open the Class AAA state tournament by facing Andover at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center in Thursday.
Zeno enters the state tournament with a school-record 1,946 sets assists in her career and could surpass 2,000 before the week ends.
"I’m really excited about possibly getting 2,000 assists," Zeno said. "I think it’s a great number and if I can reach that it would be absolutely awesome."
Regardless of whether she eclipses that total, a strong showing at the state tournament for the team is priority No. 1.
"She’s a great girl and at the end of the day, she’s a gamer," Ponies coach Michele Parker said. "She wants to win and she plays to win. She’s very competitive and she wants to see her hitters do well and wants our team to be successful. Losing isn’t an option for her."
Katie de St. Aubin, Kitty Tynen and Jessica Linnell join Zeno as the only seniors on the roster for the Ponies, but only Zeno has been a four-year varsity player. She easily surpassed Carrie Fisher’s previous school record for set assists earlier this season and has been adding to the total ever since. Fisher, who also was a four-year player, racked up nearly 1,500 set assists while playing for the Ponies through 2005.
"She has definitely paid her dues," Parker said. "Kayla and I now can laugh at the number of times I made her cry as a freshman and sophomore. We have a very close relationship and we laugh about it now and, but at the time she needed someone to remind her that she had a lot to learn."
It was that maturation process that has also helped Zeno provide leadership in many ways for the Ponies, even before becoming a captain for her senior season.
"All the girls were awesome my first year, but Kayla’s knowing how it was as a freshman definitely made it easier for me to get along with the girls," said Emily McDonough, who leads the Ponies in kills and digs as a junior this season. "She included me in everything that we were doing. As a freshman varsity player, she knew how I was feeling, a little scared and intimidated, and she definitely made it easier for me to bond with the team."
And while Zeno has raised the school’s benchmark for setters, she can and has contributed in many areas.
"Kayla is definitely an all-around player," McDonough said. "She can pass, she can hit – she can hit as hard as any of the girls and is very consistent with hitting, too. She could definitely play right side or left side if she wanted to. She’s a great hitter."
Although Parker is confident in the players expected to return next season, she admitted there will be an adjustment when Zeno is not in the lineup. The Ponies experienced what that could be like when she missed a few matches at the Chaska Invitational while taking the ACT on Oct. 24.
"It has been so nice to have that peace of mind coming into every season," Parker said. "After Chaska the girls realized how different things will be next year, even though the girls who stepped in did a phenomenal job. It will be a void that obviously will be very difficult to replace."