When you look at the type of season Dave McKienzie is having for Long Beach State’s volleyball team, it’s difficult to fathom the struggles he encountered last year.
You see the staggering statistics compiled this season by the 1997 Huntington Beach High graduate, and you can’t imagine that he is the same player who sat on the bench during his team’s biggest match last season, drinking lemonade while scanning the crowd, oblivious and unprepared when coaches called him to action.
You watch in awe as the 6-foot-3 sophomore outside hitter elevates high above the net, makes split-second adjustments and pounds balls to the floor and you wonder how his lack of focus kept him on the bench much of last season.
Make no mistake, the Dave McKienzie who leads Long Beach State with 297 kills in 18 matches this year and set an NCAA record with 58 kills in a March 19 victory over Brigham Young is the same who had only 133 kills in 21 matches last year.
But the Dave McKienzie of this year has a new attitude, one that has earned him national player of the week honors twice and has helped propel Long Beach State to the top of the national rankings. The 49ers (17-1) play at UC Irvine at 7 tonight.
“I was lazy,” McKienzie said of his attitude last year. “My work ethic wasn’t good at all, but I just thought I was going to play. In high school you can get away with it. Here there’s always somebody right behind you. If you’re slacking just a little bit then they’re taking your spot, so you have to be good all the time.”
Which is what McKienzie has been since earning his starting job midway through this season.
He has led the 49ers in kills eight times, including seven of the last eight matches. He has topped 20 kills six times, including 45 against national power UCLA and the national record against then top-ranked BYU.
“That blew my mind,” McKienzie said. “I thought that was really cool when I found out, but I didn’t think I had that many.”
Because of exhaustion, McKienzie sat out most of Game 4 in that 15-13, 15-9, 7-15, 9-15, 16-14 victory, but his 58 kills were still more than the entire team has had in five matches this season. And even after 106 attempts and 26 errors, McKienzie complained that he wasn’t getting enough action.
“I have problems in games when they don’t set me a lot because I need to just get in my groove and be hitting balls,” McKienzie said. “Even against BYU I didn’t think I got set enough. I had 106 swings and I wanted more. I was getting a ridiculous amount of sets and I’m getting mad sometimes when [the setter] doesn’t set me.”
McKienzie’s self-proclaimed poor attitude, lack of hustle and general apathy last season forced Coach Ray Ratelle to put the talented freshman on the bench. McKienzie played periodically, but Ratelle found no signs of his desire to improve.
“He was real up and down,” Ratelle said. “He would carry errors around. If he made a mistake it affected him for the rest of the match.”
Setter Chris Seiffert sees a big difference in the way McKienzie plays this year.
“It got to the point last year where after he made an error I’d be afraid to go back to him,” said Seiffert, a Capistrano Valley graduate. “He would end up compounding it. But now he’s adjusting, especially on poor sets. But now he’s putting the ball away. His play has dictated the number of sets he gets.”
McKienzie’s awakening came during a quarterfinal match of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament last season against UCLA.
Starting hitter Scott Faber carried Long Beach State through most of the first game, serving nine points as the teams battled to an 11-11 tie. But Faber sprained his ankle and coaches called on McKienzie. UCLA won, 15-12, 15-9, 15-10, to end the 49ers’ season.
“I totally blew it,” McKienzie said. “They have lemonade there and I’m just sitting there drinking that and looking in the crowd. Then all of a sudden Scott goes down. I turned around and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I just wasn’t ready to go.”
McKienzie started this season on the bench, but after advice from his sister Joy, a former All-American setter at Long Beach State, he refocused during practice.
“I hated the bench,” he said. “I wanted to quit. When I was sitting on the bench it was driving me crazy. My sister was always telling me that you have to work harder than everybody else and I promised myself I’d make the change and get back out there again.”
After a team-high 21 kills off the bench Feb. 27 against Pacific earned him a starting job, he has averaged 30.43 kills.
“I just needed my chance, I think,” McKienzie said.
Ratelle admits he didn’t see this kind of performance coming.
“I knew he had the talent,” Ratelle said. “But it would be a stretch for me to say someone would go from a spot player one year to our kill leader.”
But kill leader he is, and the rest of the 49ers realize that he must keep it up if they are to achieve their goal of winning the NCAA title.
“You look around at all the top teams and they all have that one big gun,” Seiffert said. “Dave has pretty much solidified that slot. Now we just have to saddle him and ride him all the way.”