BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. - Four years ago, a group of student-athletes from around Indiana took a chance on first-year college head coach Heather Hayes and an Indiana University Kokomo volleyball program that had a 12-41 record in its first two seasons of play. Now seniors, a trio of players will depart with a pair of conference titles, a 112-30 career record and a lifetime of memories.
The surprise standout of the group is 5-foot-9 middle hitter/right side hitter Keeana Walton, who was named to the All-River States Conference First Team last weekend. While all-conference performer Kaleigh Ensley led the team as the libero and Kaley Harness battled injuries, Walton entered as the unknown with a relatively short playing career – she did not take up volleyball until her junior year as a Lady Brave at Maconaquah High School. In a sense, when she arrived at Kokomo, she was still learning the game she now loves.
“I worked all season for this,” said Walton of the conference recognition. “Coming to IU Kokomo, I knew I would have to build myself to be the player I am today. I couldn’t have done this without the coaches pushing me and giving me extra reps. I was trying to be as good as Lindi (three-time All-RSC First Team performer Lindi Thomas, a Cougar junior). She knows a lot about the game, and since I hadn’t played the game for very long, she helped me with what kind of shots to hit. She was always there for questions – very understanding and helpful.”
During the RSC Volleyball Tournament, the Peru native took her game to a new level and helped the squad overcome a 2-0 deficit in the championship match. IU Kokomo head coach credited Walton with keeping the team focused to make the come-from-behind victory.
“She played really well,” said Hayes of the 2016 IUK Breakout Athlete of the Year. “Honestly, I think at one time in set three, we just kept feeding her the ball. She was going up with a sense of urgency – she was not ready for it to be her last month. She hit the ball consistently harder than I have ever seen her hit it. She had a great weekend. There was a stretch where you could count on her getting a kill.”
Walton agreed, saying she did not want her career to end with an upset loss. Down two sets to zero and 21-17 in the third set, Walton helped rally the Cougars from dire straits.
“Coach called a timeout (when down 21-17), and we looked at each other and said this was not how it was going to end. We then just went on the court and literally did it,” said the two-time IHSAA state finalist in the 100-meter hurdles. “For sure, there was panic. When we lost the second set, we heard John Sarber yell we could win in game five. Then we heard someone say it wouldn’t go to game five – that fired us up.”
The Cougars battled back from the 21-17 hole and won the third set before taking the final two for a second consecutive conference title. She finished with a career-high 18 kills in the championship match.
In addition to her all-conference honors, Walton was named to the RSC Champions of Character Team. The squad was selected with one player from each school chosen who best exhibits the five character values of the NAIA's Champions of Character program of respect, responsibility, integrity, servant leadership and sportsmanship. She is currently ranked No. 42 in the nation with 1.020 blocks per game. She is the Cougars season and career record-holder for block assists and total blocks – she has 342 career total blocks.
Next up is a trip to the NAIA National Volleyball Championship and an opening round contest at Ottawa University in Kansas on Nov. 19. Walton said after losing in the opening round a year ago, the squad is ready for a second go-round.
“We won’t be as nervous as last year,” she said. “The first time, we were extremely nervous. Now, it should be a little easier to get in the groove of things and prepare better.”
After the tournament, the criminal justice major plans on finishing her senior year of college and graduating from IU Kokomo with the class of 2017. After that, she plans a career in law enforcement.
“I want to be a criminal investigator,” she said. “I will probably start as a police officer and then get into investigation.”
Until then, she can take pride in knowing she was an integral member of the two-time River States Conference championship volleyball squad.