Super Senior: From Dribbling Don to national champion
By Mike Warren
MARSHFIELD – Columbus Catholic graduate Kendra Baierl of Marshfield wasn’t born a collegiate volleyball champion; she became one over time and only after years of hard work, dedication and some tough decisions.
That journey for the 6’1” middle hitter has now culminated in a Division III national championship, as a member of the UW-Eau Claire Bluegolds women’s volleyball team that captured the title Nov. 20 at Washington University in St. Louis, MO.
The road that led Baierl to that championship match was filled with many twists and turns, and one that began when the basketballs she thought would consume most of her time were almost as big as she was.
“I feel like I’ve played basketball my whole life, from Dribbling Dons up,” Kendra recalls. “And, you hear the Baierl name and I feel like you think basketball. Every single one of us played basketball. Then, I remember in sixth grade, my mom said, ‘There’s this sport volleyball. I think you should try it.’
“And, I feel like I didn’t want to. I remember saying, ‘I don’t even know what a volleyball is. I don’t want to do that.’ But, I tried it. And, I think the reason I liked volleyball so much was because no one else did it, and it could be my sport.
“I played basketball because I love the game of basketball, but I wasn’t as passionate about basketball as I was for volleyball. But I stuck with basketball, just because it did keep me in shape for volleyball, and in any team sport you just learn so much about yourself and how you work with others.”
And sticking with basketball eventually helped Kendra sort out just which of the two sports she wanted to pursue at the next level, and she had a hard lesson to learn once the choice was made.
“Because I played club volleyball, my weekends were volleyball, whereas weekdays were basketball. All of a sudden in high school basketball, we started practicing on weekends, and I was stuck to make a choice. Do I leave my club volleyball tournament early and go to basketball practice, or do I miss basketball practice? And, I had made the decision to stay and play volleyball.
“And then I lost my starting spot in basketball. And, I had to have really tough conversations with coaches. I feel like that teaches you a lot about yourself, and just being able to make decisions, and what’s important to you. And because I said, ‘Volleyball is my number one. Basketball is my number two’, now everyone on the team knows that. I’m missing basketball for volleyball. I can’t be a starter.
“And I guess that taught me just how to work with coaches, and accept a lesser role on the team.”
What Kendra would not accept would be a lesser volleyball skill set, even before she had chosen the sport over her first love.
“I set very high goals for myself, so my freshman year of high school volleyball, Kat Egle (Dons head coach) kept me after practice one day and said, ‘Get up on a box. We’re going to just hit volleyballs. I see so much potential in you, and you could do really great things on a volleyball court.’
“And that kind of put the thought in my head. Then I started playing club volleyball. I really wanted it (college volleyball) my junior and senior years of high school. That’s when I started reaching out to coaches and looking into what I needed to do to make that happen.”
Kendra credits the Columbus Catholic High School volleyball program and the arrival of Coach Egle for giving her that solid foundation she needed in preparation for making the jump to the collegiate level.
“Before then we didn’t really run proper volleyball rotations, so Kat definitely taught me the game. I knew how the game worked, and I knew where to be when. It was just catching up to the speed, and I feel like you can’t prepare for that. I felt very prepared, in terms of work ethic, because I was a three-sport athlete. I knew I could do it. It was just going to be a lot harder than I thought it was going to be,” she said.
Luckily for Kendra, she had a “sparring partner” at home. Her younger sister, Addison was also a multi-sport athlete for Columbus Catholic, and is now in her sophomore season as a member of the UW-Platteville Pioneers basketball team.
“Addison and I are very competitive people. She has pushed me to be better. I’ve pushed her to be better. Basketball was her sport, so I wanted to be better for her. I also think me being good at volleyball, and showing her how hard I’ve had to work to get to where I am has pushed her to want to work harder, too.
“So, I’m excited to see what she does, and just looking forward to being her biggest cheerleader now, since she was for me.”
Cheerleading aside, Kendra will not be shy if an up-and-coming volleyball player seeks her advice.
“It is not going to be easy, and it’s not always going to be fun. You’re going to want to quit, but you have to know that it will be so, so worth it, holding that trophy in your hands and celebrating with your teammates. There is nothing better.
“And I want them to know that is so attainable, if they want it, and if they work for it. You just need to believe in yourself and trust your coaches, even when you think your coaches don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re always right. Just believe in yourself, and don’t give up on yourself.”
Baierl graduates from UW-Eau Claire Dec. 18 with a double major in marketing and psychology, and a minor in management. That’s not to say Kendra has seen her last volleyball match.
“I’m definitely not done playing volleyball. It’s just going to look a little bit different,” she said.
Aside from playing in local summer leagues, Baierl has not ruled out the possibility of pursuing a professional volleyball career overseas. And she says coaching the sport one day has crossed her mind as well.