Mac of all trades: Kernels’ Miller named Republic player of the year

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Mackenzie Miller can do a little bit of everything on the volleyball court.

In that way, she’s the perfect embodiment of the Mitchell High School volleyball program.

Miller, the 5-foot-11 junior outside hitter who is known simply as “Mac,” can play all six positions on the floor and excels at each of them. She set the school record for kills in a single-season for a Kernel, with 459 and she led the team in serving aces with 39. Miller had 362 digs and will likely pass 1,000 digs early in her senior season, just before crossing the 1,000-kill mark in her career next year.

That was the goal for Mitchell coach Deb Thill when Miller’s large class of juniors was growing up: create well-rounded players who can play multiple positions.

Miller, who ironically played setter when the Kernels’ big group of standout juniors started playing in the fifth grade, enjoys her many roles on the court.

“We talk about how you’re going to decide what happens, not the ball,” Miller said. “It’s just about being aggressive and going after every ball and not letting it touch the ground and making plays.”

On the team front, Miller had a heavy hand in the Kernels’ success this season, helping Mitchell to a 21-6 record and the program’s first trip to the state tournament since 2012. Her play made her a unanimous choice for The Daily Republic’s volleyball player of the year in 2017.

Miller is the 18th recipient of the award, which is voted upon by the newspaper’s sports staff, and she’s the seventh Kernel to win the award, the first since Taylin Alm in 2012. Other area players to receive consideration this year are fellow Kernels Mandy Schmidt and Chelsea Brewster, Burke/South Central’s Taylee Indahl, Hanson’s Heather Kayser and McCook Central/Montrose’s McKenna Kranz.

All-around threat

Miller received most of her attention at the net, as an outside hitter, pounding kill after kill all season for the Kernels. She had at least 10 kills in every dual match Mitchell played, including 11 matches with at least 20 kills or more and had a .325 hitting percentage for the season.

“Getting a kill record on the team we had, which was pretty well-balanced, is very impressive,” Mitchell coach Deb Thill said. “We’ve got a good team and it’s not like she’s our only player. For an outside hitter, she has some really impressive numbers.”

And considering Miller was a known commodity, after a first-team all-state season as a sophomore with 341 kills, she frequently received the most attention from opposing defenses.

“Other teams, it was very evident, were committed to shutting her down because they were committing their blocks to her in a big way,” Thill said. “For her to still get as many as she did, more than 50 in the state tournament, that’s not very easy to do.”

Both player and coach said the difference in Miller’s improvement from her sophomore to junior seasons was Miller becoming a smarter player on the court. Miller said the experience of her first big season as a primary hitter in 2016 helped the second time around.

“Experience and getting more comfortable on the court made a big difference,” she said, adding that she was a physically stronger player as well. “You’ve got a better idea of what to expect.”

Miller doled out plenty of credit to her teammates, with Brewster and Carly Haring as Mitchell’s fellow primary attackers who benefitted from the attention on Miller, along with Schmidt as the setter getting the pass to her. Eleven of her 12 teammates are juniors and are set to be back next season.

“They all came out and made big improvements this season,” Miller said. “We all improved and made ourselves a much tougher team.”

But Miller acknowledged the season’s end was bittersweet, as the second-seeded Kernels lost their first two matches at the state tournament, ending Mitchell’s goal of a state championship or a top-four finish.

“It was a big step from last year and we accomplished what we wanted to, getting into the state tournament,” she said. “I think that the last win (over O’Gorman) just really put it all together.”

For all of her hitting successes, Miller said she likes the defensive side of the game because the crazy saves and digs can rally a team in a way kills do not.

Miller led the team in aces but admitted she can improve on her serving and cut down on service errors. Thill said Miller can be a better jumper at the net, something that could make an already dangerous player even better.

“She’s got another level or two to her game,” Thill said. “She can keep getting better and that’s what is exciting about this team.”

As she was approaching the single-season kill record, previously held by Alm, Miller said she didn’t think much about it but admitted there’s only one way to approach her record again in her senior season.  

“Break it even further next year,” Miller said.

Here's more on the other area standouts to be considered for the award, with the point totals in parentheses:

Indahl (9): A sophomore hitter, Indahl was Burke/South Central’s key player in a run to the state tournament for the first time in Cougars history. Indahl had 449 kills, 343 digs, 43 total blocks and 46 aces, as BSC finished at 29-7 and sixth in Class B. She was an all-tournament pick in Rapid City, with 43 kills and 37 digs in three matches.  

Schmidt (9): The junior setter had 944 assists on the season, averaging 10 per set, with 26 aces and 214 digs, finishing the season as an all-Eastern South Dakota Conference pick for the Kernels. She also set the MHS career record for set assists at the state tournament, now with 2,110 for her career, while recording the second-most assists of any Class AA setter at the state tournament, with 108 in three matches.

Kayser (7): The senior setter was named the Cornbelt Conference most valuable player and was key to the Beavers’ balanced offense, posting 756 assists during the regular season, 80 kills, 21 aces and 271 digs. She was a Class B state all-tournament pick, with 12 kills, 105 assists and 52 digs in three matches.

Brewster (3): The Kernels’ junior was a talented all-around player all season, hitting .302 for 311 kills, 42 total blocks, 325 digs and 32 aces. She was the Kernels’ lone representative on the Class AA all-tournament team at state.

Kranz (2): A powerful senior middle blocker, Koepsell had 208 kills and 77 total blocks in the regular season for MCM, before posting 35 kills, 14 total blocks and 10 digs in the three-day tournament in Class A, as the Fighting Cougars finished fifth.

Past players of the year

2001 — Marcy Jacobsen, Mitchell; 2002 (winter) — Chelaine Knudsen, Andes Central; 2002 (fall) — Chelsey Miller, Mitchell; (*Note: 2002 season switch) 2003 — Katrina Brooks, Andes Central; 2004 — Gina Baldwin, Mitchell; 2005 — Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2006 — Jena Doom, Wagner; 2007 — Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2008 — Keaya Weber, Wagner; 2009 — Jilanne Doom, Wagner; 2010 — Charlee Nelson, Mitchell; 2011 — Dana Misiaszek, Mitchell; 2012 — Taylin Alm, Mitchell; 2013 — Anna Flitner, Lyman; 2014 — Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2015 — Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2016 — Sierra Mesman, Bon Homme; 2017 — Mackenzie Miller, Mitchell