NCAA Berth is Pinnacle of Emotional Journey for Kennesaw State

  0 Wendy Mayer | November 24th, 2017 | College - Women's Indoor, Division I Mid-Major, News

Kennesaw State will make its NCAA Tournament debut next week after a dream season, including both Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles. The achievement is even sweeter due to everything the team has been through on and off the court the last five years since head coach Keith Schunzel and his staff arrived at the school in 2013,

Off the court, the Owls have faced a leukemia diagnosis for the coach’s son, a multiple sclerosis diagnosis for a student-athlete, and multiple breast cancer diagnosis for team family members.

On the court, there was a redhot 2015 season that ended in disappointment just one match away from an NCAA berth, then a 2016 that saw the team achieve its first regular season conference title but get cut off in the

Together all of that made for a wave of emotions as the final point went down against Florida Gulf Coast last Saturday, punching Kennesaw State’s ticket to the big dance for the first time.

To get the full picture of tragedy to triumph, VolleyMob sat down with Coach Schunzel to get the scoop on the last five years.

On a personal note, how is your son Griffin doing? We all followed his story and that of #SchunzelStrong back in 2015 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. 

He is great. We finish treatment hopefully this coming June, so he has about seven months left of chemo and then hopefully he will be done with it. We will get his port taken out and that will be it. But, he is feeling great. We do oral chemo every night at home and then we go in once a month for some extra treatment, but he is growing, getting big and he will be five on December 3. He is doing awesome.

His fight has kind of paralleled your team’s climb to the top of the Atlantic Sun and now first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. Has that helped you and the team keep a bigger picture view that there is more than championships?

Griffin was diagnosed in the spring of 2015, so this group of seven seniors, who have been so incredible for us, that was the spring of their freshman year. We had just been through a pretty rough fall. We were a lot better but we just didn’t win a lot. We were starting four of five freshmen and a sophomore. Then, he was diagnosed in March of 2015 and the program has taken off. It has been pretty cool.

I think that is why when we finally broke through here this past weekend it was pretty emotional, because a lot has gone on in our five years from a life standpoint too. So, for us to kind of do this as a program and also to be towards the end of his treatment and also one of our players was diagnosed not long after that with multiple sclerosis.

Our best player, Anaiah Boyer, who was MVP of the conference tournament, it is her identical twin sister, Amariah. They came in together and we found out that first fall that had MS. Her freshman year she was not able to play, then we took about two months to figure out what was wrong with her, then when the doctors finally figured out what was going on, we got her on the best MS medication out there and it started to control her symptoms. Then she trained and played for two years and for a while last year she was the starting right side for us. Her story has been incredible because she was able to play for two years with that disease. Then this year the symptoms came back pretty strong.

 In saying all of that, I guess you could say that there is so much more to your volleyball family than winning championships?

Anybody can go that route because everybody has stories with cancer, but we have had a pretty direct impact. We have had three kids in my five years here whose moms have had breast cancer. We have just had a lot of stuff like that go on that has gone along with our journey, which has made it pretty neat that we just keep moving forward despite all of this craziness.

Everyone talks about graduation good people and doing things the right way and more, but it seems that is truly how you have handled all of this.

I have always been that way. When we got here, the first year the culture wasn’t awesome.  There were a few times that first spring I just took the players into our video room and pulled up CNN and just started clicking on some stories and saying guys look at what is going on in the world. People are killing each other and there are all sorts of problems and we are whining and complaining and we get to play volleyball and get a college education.

So, I have always been aware of some of that perspective stuff or at least I have tried to be. But then, once some stuff started to hit home with us within our volleyball family directly, it got even easier to do the perspective thing.

And we started to get a roster full of people who wanted to do this for the right reasons and were selfless people that cared about each other. I think once the culture changed, it also got a lot easier from that standpoint.

One of the things that has emerged from your personal experiences with Griffin is Griffin’s Game, a yearly match where you donate money to a local family in need that is dealing with cancer. You are 3-0 in those matches. In addition to that, does being able to give back like that mean something to you and the program?

The volleyball record just means we put the right people on the schedule that night. But the coolest thing about Griffin’s Game is that each year we have given literally thousands of dollars to a family that really needs it. It has been awesome to just love on those guys and support them. Last year, the family that we honored, the kid was in the hospital getting treatment so he sent a little video we were able to put up on the video board in the arena.

You can make a direct impact and that is the coolest thing we have been able to experience with that. You can donate to a charity and there are so many great organizations out there, but we are visibly and literally donating between $3000 and $5000 each year directly to a family, who really needs it and who is trying to save their kid’s life. We are just trying to give a family hope and let them know that people love them and care about them. All of these families were strangers to us until we went out and searched for who we could help. We found local families and unfortunately it is pretty easy to find local families who are dealing with these because there are a lot of them.

 Switching gears to volleyball. The build for the program started in 2015 when you made the A-Sun Championship game and has followed with two regular season championships and now a tournament championship and NCAA berth. Can you walk us through that process?

In reality, the build started when we went 10-19 when our seniors were freshmen. I think everybody could see that we were clearly better than we were our first year here when we were handed a roster of players, but it is really hard to win at good college sports. In Division I athletics, it is just really hard to win.

If they had more success their freshman year, I think that would have actually hurt us in the long run. This group is really, really driven and they came in here wanting to put this place on the map and with big goals and big dreams, but them missing out on the conference tournament their freshman year, really drove it home that we really had to get to work and we had a long way to go. Then, their sophomore year, in 2015 we started out real hot, but didn’t play a real strong schedule, and made it all the way to the conference final and I think that stung a little bit for them because they were a step away. But, in reality, we weren’t ready to win that match yet.

Then, in 2016, we continued to mature and we had a couple of really good recruiting classes behind that first class. You could really start to feel the maturity and the experience. And even though we started poorly, we were playing a strong schedule and by the time conference season came around, we were humming pretty good. I thought actually last year, us and Lipscomb were the two best teams in our conference for most of the year, even though we got upset in the semifinals, but it was a really good and I felt like we were moving in the right direction and were in a really good place. Our players were working their butts off and I had a pretty good feeling that we would have a good year this year.

And by year, I mean starting in January with the training and through the summer and into the fall. With the group of people we had coming into 2017 as a whole, we had never been this deep, we had never been this motivated individually and as a team. So, I felt like if we got some breaks and things fell our way that we could have a special year and that is what it has turned out to be.

Did winning the regular season title in 2016 and falling short in the conference tournament and ultimately missing the NCAA Tournament fuel the fire for this season?

We had kept moving forward and we went 12-2 in the league and had some nice out of conference wins, but in the end, everybody wants to be in the dance, so I think it stoked the fire a little bit no doubt. And it really set the table for our seniors that they had one shot left at it and they had to make it count. And then we had a bunch a juniors, sophomores and freshmen that were totally on board. Coming into 2017, we had never been remotely this talented. Our freshman class is exceptional, so to put those guys along with the sophomores, juniors and seniors on the team, and then add in all of that extra motivation of ‘okay we are taking steps; okay we beat Georgia Tech; okay we have been the best team in the state; okay, we won a conference regular season championship, but we need to break through.’ It is all about the big dance when it comes down to it. You could see it in their eyes for the year. This was obviously something we had talked about and they were working towards all year.

You have 11 juniors and seniors on the roster. Obviously that is a huge factor. Was this the next step logically?

It is the progression and the next step you want to have, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going to happen because there are a number of other really good teams in our league. That is one of the most rewarding things – when you put this much time and energy into something and you put it on paper and it has been talked about and these kids came here to do all of that work that they are doing… So for us to be able to break through and finally do it and do it the way that we did: going 13-1 in the regular season and then really playing exceptional volleyball in the semis and the finals, beating Lipscomb 3-1 on their home court in the semis, which felt like a championship match, and then winning against Gulf Coast 3-0 playing really high level volleyball, it was pretty cool to see and pretty special to be a part of.

Talk to me about watching that final point go down and knowing that the goal had been accomplished and you were going to the dance.

It is funny. I think we were up 22-11 or something like that in the third. We were up pretty big and obviously it was going to be really hard for them to come back from that, so you are trying to not get that 25th point already in your mind. Our players started smiling a little bit on the court and they could feel it, and I was just saying ‘guys, next point, next point.’ We were trying to keep locked in. It was very emotional for me and for a lot of our players too. Our staff and the older players on this team have committed three to five years to this journey. It is constantly on your mind; you are thinking about it, you are working towards it. And so, to finally reach one of your goals… it was awesome.

When I came here people said, you will never win there. Where is that place? What is that school? Stuff like that was constantly on my mind, because I knew we could. I see how pretty our campus is. We have 35,000 students – we are one of the 50 biggest schools in the country. Our arena is beautiful and we have led the league in attendance the last three years. We’ve got a lot going on here.

So, all of that stuff has just driven us and driven us and driven us, so when that point went down, it was awesome. It was a feeling that I will never forget and a moment that I will never forget. I am really, really happy for our players that they were able to experience it.

Now as you look ahead to NCAA Selection Sunday, you know that your team will be on the screen. How do you prepare your players for what lies ahead since this is not only their first time, but the first time in program history?   

We actually met quickly today (Monday), trained a little and watched some of the highlights from the weekend from ESPN3 and I talked to them a little bit about the selection show. One thing that we did for our first two or three years here, I had the whole team over to my house to watch the selection show, because many of them didn’t even know it existed. They didn’t know what it was or how it worked. I said guys, someday our name is going to be up there. We need to know how it is: that there are different regions and there are 16 seeds and so on. I was trying to educate them. The last two years we haven’t had to do that because of the kind of players that we are recruiting and because of where this thing is going. Our players are very, very aware of the selection show and the tournament and all of that stuff.

But, I was talking to them today about it and I was telling them how special of a time it is for a team, knowing that your name is going to be up there and, for us, knowing that that name has never been up there before. That is going to be a very memorable time. I just said how happy I am for them and how much I want them to enjoy that night.

They are going to come over a couple of hours early that night and have a big family dinner and really soak in the night. To me that night is one of the cool, pure things about college athletics. Watching the NCAA selection show and see where you are going … frankly I don’t really care where we go. We have played Kentucky at their place and there are not a whole lot of teams that are higher level out there than them, so our team is not going to be shocked no matter where we go. Obviously we want a good draw, and we want to have a game we can compete and win at, but it is just going to be an awesome night and I am really excited about it.

With as many upper classmen as you have, I assume you don’t have to worry about them just being happy to be there because they excitement will spill over from the conference tournament?

To give you an idea, we had three players text our strength coach, while he was over at my house for dinner last night, asking when they could lift again with it being Thanksgiving break. The moral of that is that they want to train and keep rolling. I can tell you for a fact that whoever is on that bracket against us, our team is going to think that they can beat them. That is a cool thing because of the culture we have developed and because of the kind of players and student-athletes we have in this program that really embrace that. There is a feeling of satisfaction and happiness of course because of what we have been able to accomplish, but also a very palpable sense of we are going to keep this thing rolling as long as we can and we are going to go for it whoever is there. And that is really neat as a coach too.

Talk about some of the people who have gotten you there. You have the Conference Setter of the Year in Kristi Piedimonte and two other first team All-Atlantic Sun players, Anaiah Boyer and Leisl Engelbrecht.

The player who got MVP of the tournament, Anaiah Boyer, who is an outside hitter for us: I have never been around a player who has been so intentional about improving every year and adding pieces to her game like her. Every single year she has been here, she keeps getting better and better and better. And if she plays five more years, she is going to keep getting better professionally. Her will to win and her desire to improve and play as high level as she can is off the charts. She has certainly helped with the culture and what we have developed here.

You could put our libero (Katarina) Kat Morton in that same category. They want to train, they love playing, they love competing and they want to keep improving.

One of our starting middles Leisl Engelbrecht, who is a junior, came into my office in January and said ‘Coach, I want to be first team all-conference this year.’ Last year she was second team, so she said how do I get there? I said alright, that is awesome, let’s get there. She ended up hitting .330 on the year and averaging over a block a set.

We have had so many people who have made such a huge difference in this program that it is hard to pinpoint just a couple of people.

When you have five all-conference selections, including one on the freshman team, that is understandable as it is pretty safe to say you have a good roster of players.

For sure. And we have a couple of kids on that bench that would be starting at a couple hundred programs around the country. It has been cool because we have never been this deep. We have never been this talented where we have so many different options and so many players that can do different things on the court.

Our starting right side, Sydni Shelton, was a starting left side her first two years and we moved her over and she is an all-conference kid on the right side as a junior. That is cool that she was able to make that change and embrace it and go with it.

It has been a fun ride with these guys.

Reaching this milestone with your team, do you look back on some of the mentors that you have had and the road you took to get here? Who are the some of the people that have helped you along the way?

There is no question that we do some things, whether it is a tradition or something that we will do with training or with individual meetings or team dinners or whatever, that I have picked up along the way from everywhere that we have been or morphed into our own.

I am so thankful that I was a player collegiately and a player professionally for two different coaches and that I worked at five different schools as an assistant because I think that really helped me massively to see ways of doing things that are great, ways of doing things that I didn’t like, ways to communicate, ways to treat people, all of that different stuff. And thankfully I was smart enough, even when I was in my 20’s just out of college, to write stuff down, to soak stuff up and just to learn from people I have been around because I have been around so many incredible mentors.

I told the team that before last weekend, telling them some stories about coaches I had played for and that I wouldn’t be here, none of us would be here, without these people that had such a huge part in my life. So, for me to look back and think about all of those people, that is pretty neat for me.

Do you want to give any of those people a shoutout?

I could start with my club coach my junior and senior year. He was at our Gulf Coast match. He is like my brother, he was in my wedding, he is like a second dad to me. He is my best friend. His name is Frank, and he has just been unbelievable to me.

Every college coach – I learned from Dave Shondell at Purdue, but I was working with him when I was in college, so I had the advantage of coaching with him when he was still doing high school back at Muncie Central. Then the Munciana guys, Wes Lyon and Mike Lingenfelter, and all of those guys. Everywhere I have been I have been around really good people. I went down to North Texas and worked with a really good friend of mine, Ken Murczek, and I learned a lot from him. I think we learned a lot from each other. That was very unique. And then before I came here, I was with Craig Skinner at Kentucky and he does a phenomenal job of how he runs a program and manages his players and how good he is to people and how high character he is. And I learned a ton from him just about how to treat people. I have been really fortunate to be around some really great mentors.

And of course you can’t forget your current coaching staff, especially your wife, Briana, who is a volunteer assistant. How special has this been to be able to truly do this as a family?

I asked our strength and conditioning coach right after we won (the tournament championship), can you go get my phone please. He grabbed it and I walked out in the hallway and Facetimed with Bri within two minutes after we won on Saturday night because she is pregnant and due in about two weeks and they wouldn’t let her travel.  I Facetimed with her right afterwards because she has been such a huge part of this.

We have moved obviously a number of times, thankfully not lately because we are here and we are so happy here, but as you know, being a spouse of a coach – and she is more than a spouse of a coach, because she is actually on our staff  – she has been so awesome. I learn from her all of the time and she is as competitive as it gets. She is just such a huge part of my life and this program’s life and it is really neat to be able to share that with somebody. It is also frustrating at times, but it is really, really neat. I would not trade it for the world that we are a part of this thing together. That even adds to the family atmosphere of it, that we are building something and we are growing this thing together just like we are growing our family. It is really cool.

With her being only two weeks away from giving birth, is there a concern that an NCAA win might bring the baby?

Yes, (laughs), but we will cross that bridge when it comes. It has been a heck of a year. During the last five years there have been so many things that have happened, many of them hopefully are rare and don’t happen a lot in my career or in my life because it has been challenging, but that makes it even sweeter and more rewarding.

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About Wendy Mayer

Wendy Mayer

Wendy Mayer has worked in athletics media relations for the last 20 years. The Northwest Missouri State alumna is currently senior writer for after spending the last 15 years with Purdue athletics.

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