The words sounded ominous when Central Florida coach Todd Dagenais spoke them to his staff a few years ago: “I think we just lost our libero.”
The player in question was McKenna Melville, a product of the volleyball factory at Minnesota’s Eagan High School. She had committed to UCF as a sophomore, and the Knights were looking forward to having her in their back row.
Melville still was coming to UCF, not as a libero, but as an outside hitter who had grown four inches to 6-foot-1 between her sophomore and senior years.
Over the last three-plus seasons with the Knights, Melville has been one of the most versatile — if underappreciated — players in the nation. And it might not be a coincidence that UCF has been dominant in the American Athletic Conference since her arrival.
After UCF, which has won 15 matches in a row, pulled a reverse sweep victory Friday at Houston to end the regular season, Melville has 578 kills, most in the nation. She’s also seven in the nation at 4.98 kills per set. The Knights are 26-6 overall, won the AAC at 19-1, and are now 59-3 during Melville’s career. And that five-set win at Houston? Melville finished with a flourish after a first set in which she had two kills and an error. The final line saw her with 24 kills, seven errors in 71 attacks, an assist, 15 digs, and a career-high eight blocks, two solo.
UCF also has made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, getting a first-round win over Florida State in 2019 behind Melville’s 20 kills and 27 digs.
Melville is a three-time All-AAC first-team selection and the conference’s reigning player of the year.
“I think the thing that makes her stand out over a lot of players in the country … is she is truly a six-tool volleyball player,” said Dagenais, in his 14th season overseeing the Knights. “She can block. She can serve. She can set. She can play defense. She can serve receive, and, obviously, she can attack.
“She’s good at every single skill across the board.”
Melville’s growth into a standout volleyball player shouldn’t be much of a surprise. From an early age, she was in the gym with her mother, Kathy Gillen, a high school volleyball coaching legend in Minnesota. Gillen’s teams have won more than 500 matches along with seven state championships, and Eagan has sent numerous players to the Division I level during her three-decade tenure.
Melville often accompanied her mother to practice and lent a hand once in a while.
“We were doing drills, and I remember she was in like second grade,” Gillen said, “and she was throwing balls in … and she kept throwing balls in, and they kept missing.
“Afterward she said, ‘I kept throwing the ball there, Mom, because they couldn’t figure that spot out.’ ”
As naturally as Melville took to volleyball, she also stood out at softball, playing club at a very competitive level. And, as with volleyball, as Melville grew, her hitting only got stronger.
Gillen said her softball coaches tried to encourage her to pursue a college scholarship.
“But volleyball was always her love,” Gillen said. “Could she have done it? I think she could have, but volleyball is just always where she was at.”
Added McKenna: “Volleyball was just something I always had a knack for. But I think it was more than what was taught, more than just the pass, the set and the kill. I think it was the chess game you always have to play. … And I love how fast-paced volleyball is.
“I love softball, but I was never really wanting to spend as much time as I do (on volleyball). I knew that I could do it for volleyball and that I would love doing it for volleyball. I didn’t know if I would love it with softball, so I chose the one I loved.”
As her volleyball skills progressed through her teens, she had visions of staying home to play at Minnesota. She saw several of her teammates being courted by big schools: Kennedi Orr (setter, Nebraska), Alyssa Doucette (RS, Missouri State), Ellie Husemann (MB, Minnesota) and Brie Orr (setter, Iowa).
But as a sophomore in high school, Melville was a dime-a-dozen player: a 5-foot-9 libero. That dampened the interest of many Power 5 schools.
UCF, however, decided to take a flier on Melville. Dagenais thought he had found his libero of the future.
“Nobody knew she was going to grow 3 inches. No one knew she was going to go 10-1 before she left club.
“I’m sure a lot of people took a look at her and said, ‘Hey, nice player, but there’s a thousand of her out there.’ We invested on a hunch.”
Melville said she began her transition to the front row late in her high school career. She started as a right side, then, because more outside hitters were needed for her club team, she was moved to the left.
Soon, she was showing out against some of the top players in Minnesota: current Wisconsin teammates setter Sydney Hilley and DS Izzy Ashburn, Minnesota libero CC McGraw — Melville said she still counts McGraw among her close friends — and Michigan middle Kayla Bair. In club competition, Dagenais said, she was “battling swing for swing with Logan Eggleston,” the Texas first-team All-American.
Best of all — at least as far as UCF is concerned — she maintained all the back-row skills she had developed while playing libero.
While Melville is blessed with size, athletic ability and a diverse skill set — she also played setter for three years coming through the club level — she also possesses a high volleyball IQ.
“That’s her gift,” Gillen said. “She just sees the game in slow motion. She’s not overly fast, but she anticipates extremely well. I think she knows where the ball is going to go before the ball knows where the ball is going to go.”
But that didn’t happen automatically because she was raised by a coach. Melville is a student of the game who, Dagenais said, watches hours of film on her own.
To wit: Gillen said Melville went back and watched film after UCF’s first match with Wichita State this season. Melville had 23 kills, but she needed 72 swings to get them and hit .167. So she went back and watched, noticed where the defense was lining up and what its tendencies were.
The next time UCF met the Shockers, Melville had 18 kills but needed only 27 swings and hit .667.
As cliche as it sounds, Dagenais said Melville is like another coach on the floor. Many times, he said, opponents’ tendencies he and his staff spend days studying, Melville can learn in a fraction of the time then relay the information to her teammates during matches.
She also helps her teammates study film and isn’t shy about giving them direction during practice.
“She’s so serious in practice that if you don’t know her, sometimes you would say she is aloof or she is bossy,” he said. “But she’s a professional athlete in her mind. This is her craft, and this is her job and she takes it so seriously in how she prepares not only for practice but also for matches.”
Melville said she has learned some important lessons while being that so-called coach on the floor. She plans to get into coaching once she is done playing, and she has gotten a head start on knowing how to handle players.
There’s a fine line, she said, when correcting or offering information to a teammate. She has learned which approach works best with each player.
“I know my setter, Amber Olson, I could give her tough love,” Melville said. “I probably could punch her, and she’d give me a hug back because that’s what she needed to get going. But there’s some people on the court who just need a hug and, ‘OK. You’ve got the next one,’ or there’s somebody who needs, ‘Hey, this is exactly what you did wrong, and I know you can do it.’ ”
Her teammates, Dagenais said, seem to take it well, especially considering Melville doesn’t demand anything from them that she doesn’t demand from herself.
“If you don’t hold yourself to those standards, how can you expect that from the players and those around you?” she said.
As intense as she is on the court, Melville is equal parts — to use Dagenais’ word — “goofball” off of it. Melville doesn’t deny it. She said the players often poke fun at Dagenais as well as each other. And no one is spared, not even Melville.
“It’s in the moment. It’s just witty humor,” she said. “But I think being able to keep everything light in a time when we have to win these games and volleyball is super stressed … It gives you a better connection to your teammates, and it makes it like it’s not a job.
“Volleyball is supposed to be fun. When it turns into a job, that’s when it turns into not being fun and not as exciting for other people.”
The only people not having fun are Melville’s opponents. This season has been particularly impressive, given that the Knights have played what Dagenais calls “the toughest schedule that we have ever played.”
In addition to her nation-leading kill and point totals, she also hits nearly .300, has 33 aces, averages a team-leading 3.03 digs per set and has 78 blocks, 15 solo.
Those on the outside looking in might assume Melville is compiling her eye-popping numbers against the AAC’s lesser lights. That hardly has been the case. Consider:
— Against current No. 14 Georgia Tech, she had 19 kills, six blocks, six digs and two aces.
— Against Florida State — still among the “others receiving votes” in the AVCA poll — she had 27 kills, 28 digs and three aces.
— Over two matches with South Carolina, ranked No. 24 at the time of its non-conference meetings with the Knights, she had 41 kills and 24 digs.
— Melville had a 30-kill, 10-dig match against Georgia — hitting .366
— Against Miami, No. 11 in the NCAA RPI, she had 21 kills, nine digs and five blocks as the Knights handed the Hurricanes their first loss of the season.
UCF was No. 25 in last week’s NCAA RPI. While VolleyballMag.com has recognized her — last spring she was a VolleyballMag.com third-team All-American, in 2019 she was fourth-teamer and in 2018 made our third team and also our national all-freshman team — the AVCA has given her only honorable mention the past three seasons.
“I just can’t understand for the life of me why coaches haven’t put her on there,” Dagenais said, “other than she might not have the name on the front of her jersey that they’re used to voting for.
“If she went out and put up the same numbers against the same competition with a different name on her jersey, she would be a second-team All-American already.”
Melville said she certainly thinks about how she stacks up against the top players in the nation. Rather than harbor any bitterness about a perceived slight, she chooses to be thankful for her experience at UCF.
“I know volleyball might be somebody’s end-all, be-all,” she said. “I’m getting an education for free. I am able to pursue the degree that I want, and just to be able to go out there and have fun, I think, is really cool.
“I’d rather be playing six rotations than sitting on the bench at some big school. I think it’s what makes you happy and what makes you ready for the future, and this program is something that has given me everything I need to be successful.”
UCF might have lost its libero, but it all ended up pretty well for Melville.
“I think things work out for a reason,” Gillen said. “She has thrived (at UCF) and loves it there. She has her network of friends. Where she landed I think was a good fit.
“The individual accolades are not what makes her tick. The winning the tight games and the big games and having the whole team behind her, that’s the stuff that really makes her tick.”