Dec. 6, 2013
Family and K-State are synonymous.
For incoming volleyball recruit, Kali Eaken, selecting a college to attend was simple. It came down to one thing that simply brought the other, no matter which way one looks at it.
"A big part about picking a school was I wanted to be close to home," said the resident of Raytown, Missouri, a town of about 30,000 southeast of Kansas City and 10 miles from the Kansas-Missouri border. "I'll be about two hours from home [at Kansas State] so my parents can come see me play."
Eaken comes from a close, tight-knit family, and she has had her fair share of suitors - well-deservedly - from the outside world of collegiate volleyball. She was named to the AVCA/Under Armour Girls High School All-America First Team in early November after helping Bishop Miege High School capture its third state volleyball title in the last four years. Eaken was also named this year's Kansas Volleyball Association (KVA) Class 4A Player of the Year and led the state of Kansas in assists.
"When I first started visiting schools, they were all really far away," said Eaken, whose final list of potential schools included Oregon and Louisville in addition to K-State. "I wanted to be close to home, and I love everything about this place. I wanted to go to a small college town and where everyone was into the school and supportive."
Eaken will be with the Wildcats starting in the summer of 2014, joining a program that has made nine appearances in the NCAA Tournament since head coach Suzie Fritz took over the program in 2001. Fritz and associate head coach Jeff Grove and assistant coach Jeff Hulsmeyer will offer the setter plenty of experience and tutoring to further her play on the volleyball court.
"I love the coaching staff," said Eaken. "All of them together are awesome. They all have lots of experience, and I am excited to play for them."
For Eaken, the recruitment process started in eighth grade, but it intensified towards the end of her freshman year in high school. The process did not last long, however, as Eaken's choice was a late entrant into the race. The K-State coaching staff began their recruitment later than other schools, but Eaken did not hold that fact against the possibility of playing for the Wildcats. She committed to K-State in April of her sophomore year.
"Once I got here, I knew I'm coming here [to Kansas State]," said Eaken. "I loved it, everything about it, and it was just for me."
For the last seven years, Eaken has learned from Gwenn Pike, a member of the National High School Coaches Hall of Fame and winner of 18 state titles. Pike was Eaken's coach with the KC POWER Volleyball Club - of which Pike is the cofounder and director - before the four years in high school.
"I have played for [coach Pike] for a long time, and I wouldn't be anywhere without her," said Eaken.
The admiration between teacher and student is mutual.
"Kali is a great athlete and a very competitive individual," said Pike. "Volleyball has become the perfect sport for Kali to dominate and demonstrate her ability. Kali's lethal dominant left hand and great jumping ability offer a constant offensive threat to her opponents. Her relentless effort and endless practice sessions contributed to an aggressive and precise setting ability. Not only does Kali make incredible sets from both good and bad passes, but she is also an invaluable leader."
Eaken's leadership was certainly on display in her senior year at Bishop Miege. After finishing third in the state championships in her junior year and with a younger team around her in 2013, Eaken helped lead the Stags to the school's 22nd state title. Eaken considers this past season her "most rewarding" yet.
"Everyone worked really hard and got so much better," said Eaken. "Getting to see the younger girls win a state championship was awesome and I enjoyed being a part of that."
As a setter, Eaken is part of nearly every play on the court - a role she greatly enjoys.
"I'm always involved with the play," said Eaken about being a setter. "I get to be a part of other people's success. You have to work together. I like helping my teammates and them looking to you and you looking to them. I like being in charge.
"There is a definitely a time to be led and to lead. There's a balance of that [with the setter position]."
For Fritz and K-State coaching staff, Eaken is, as Fritz puts it, "one of the best setters in the country."
"She's a winner," said Fritz. "Wherever you put her, she wins. She's ultra-competitive. She plays with a tremendous amount of heart and enthusiasm.
"The thing I appreciate about Kali the most, though, is her ability to make the people around her better."
Before Eaken steps foot on campus in Manhattan as a student, she will get to experience something few volleyball players get to: a trip to the NCAA Volleyball Final Four. As part of being named an All-American this year, Eaken and her fellow honorees are invited to attend the Division I volleyball tournament finals in Seattle in mid-December. Eaken will get to be a tourist - a trip to the Space Needle is at the top of her list - and meet volleyball superstars - including Kerri Walsh - but also take part in a skills competition and exhibition match in Key Arena on Dec. 20.
Eaken will graduate from high school in the spring before moving west to Kansas State for the next stage of her life. The new chapter has not been written, but she is already looking forward to making the most of it with her new K-State family.
"No regrets," said Eaken about what she expects to get out of her time at K-State. "I just want to get everything I can out of this school, whether that is in volleyball or academics. There are a lot of opportunities here, and I want to be a part of everything I can be."