Building a Legacy: McKenna Melville

McKenna Melville is special. 

The junior outside hitter from Eagan, Minnesota has played a crucial role in elevating UCF Volleyball to perennial Top 25 status and what she has accomplished in her first two seasons has already set her down the path to be remembered as one of the greatest Knights in program history.

Heading into the 2020-21 season, Melville has already peppered her name throughout the UCF Volleyball record book. She is ninth all-time with 549 total kills in a single season (2019), second in career attempts per set (12.30) and third in career kills per set (4.49).

Melville also has the accolades to show for it. She was a 2018 and 2019 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Division I All-America Honorable Mention, was named AVCA All-Region First Team and American Athletic Conference First Team All-Conference in both 2018 and 2019, was the 2018 AVCA Southeast Region Freshman of the Year, the 2018 conference Freshman of the Year, has been named a seven-time conference player of the week, and was a member of the USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team – Japan Tour in 2019.

To add to all of that, Melville has never known a season without a conference title or a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

"McKenna has brought a very high volleyball IQ, a very distinct and exceptional vision of the game, and an intensity and urgency as a competitor to this program," said UCF Volleyball head coach Todd Dagenais. "I think all players are different in one way or another, but McKenna is certainly one of the most complete and well-rounded players I have ever coached in my career."

Melville amassed the 1,000-kill mark, a solid milestone, and benchmark for a successful career at the outside hitter position, in just her second season at the collegiate level in 2019. But, as much of a force as she has proven to be at the net, it was initially as a libero that Melville showed up on Dagenais and the coaching staff's radar.

"We were recruiting a libero and we thought McKenna was one of the top liberos in the country," said Dagenais. "When she committed, she was about five-foot-nine-inches, maybe a little taller, so we were excited to have a good-sized libero, but as her junior and senior years went on, she continued to grow and she became the dominant hitter on one of the top club teams in the nation.

"At that point, the coaching staff had to look at each other and ask ourselves 'is this a libero or an outside hitter?', and we were pretty unanimous in our decision that she could be a major offensive threat with all the skills of a high-level libero and defensive player."

Over her first two seasons, Melville has racked up 805 digs, trailing only her libero teammates in that statistic.

"I think I have always been more defensive-minded, but I like ending the play, so I think I have enjoyed being an outside hitter more than I did being a libero," said Melville.

Today, Melville uses that experience from her days as a libero to her advantage when she is on the attack.

"I feel like I have really good court awareness," said Melville. "I can kind of put my mind into my opponent's shoes and can see what they are seeing, what they are reading, and why they are wanting to move into the position that they are trying to get to.

"I notice things that are going to happen, so I've gained that ability to better anticipate what is going to happen because I have been behind that 10-foot line for so many years. Now that I am at outside hitter, I can see the whole game and not just the individual pieces of it.'

As Melville began to understand how those pieces fit together growing up, she was aided by a brilliant volleyball mind right there in her own home. Her mother, Kathy Gillen-Melville is the head coach for the Eagan Wildcats high school volleyball team. Kathy has been the head coach for the Wildcats for 28 years, and in 2014, she was inducted into the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. 

"It's super special because she really gets the game," said Melville. "She understands it and sees the bigger picture so much more than I do. If I am frustrated with one thing, she will help me with that plus six other things. We have a bond because of it that is almost unbreakable."

Today, Kathy's mindset is to be Melville's biggest fan first and foremost. 

"Because she isn't on the court at practice or my games, she tells me she just wants to sit in the stands and watch and cheer me on," said Melville. "If I ask her opinion, then she will put in her input, but if I don't ask, she won't say anything."

Despite living over 1,000 miles away from her mom today, Melville continues to make her proud. In 2019, Melville earned a spot on the United States Collegiate National Team – Japan Tour after a three-day tryout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Melville went head-to-head with more than 200 of the nation's top collegiate volleyball players from 87 institutions across the country.

Melville set out with 11 other teammates from different schools across the nation for a two-week tour of Japan, complete with training sessions and international matches.

"It was a whole different culture," said Melville. "[The Japanese teams] play incredible defense because they are smaller. At most, they were 5-foot-10-inches tall, but the majority were even smaller than that. So, they were defensive-minded first, playing to that strength."

It was also a culture shock for Melville and teammates as they navigated around the city between matches.

"It was such a cool and different experience," said Melville. "Not only were we in a country that we weren't familiar with, but we all barely knew each other as it was since most of us came from different schools. We would be on our own for hours at a time, so we had to figure out how to get around and get from place to place without being able to read the signs."

The team ended its tour in Japan with a 1-1-5 record, but Melville's time spent overseas would prove to be beneficial in ways that would not necessarily show in the record column.
"I really enjoyed talking to the other girls and being able to take away a few things from each player," said Melville. "We were able to pick up on a few things from the multiple different coaches in Japan as well, so to be able to take what they taught us and bring it back home to UCF was big."

It is that sponge-like mentality that has helped Melville take her game to the next level, and in doing so, helped UCF to back-to-back conference titles and NCAA Tournament playoff berths.
In 2018, the Knights secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament after dominating conference competition with a perfect, 14-0 conference record. Although UCF would not make it past the first round, falling to FGCU, 3-2, they would be back with a vengeance the next season.

The Knights returned to the big dance again in 2019 after capturing their second straight conference title following a dramatic, 3-2 home victory over Cincinnati in the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship.

This time around in the NCAA Tournament, the Knights would square off against in-state rival Florida State in the first round, an opponent UCF had not beaten in almost 40 years (1980) headed in.

Melville knew attitude would be a big factor in determining the outcome.

"If you are already scared when you walk onto the court, you're going to be scared in the way you play," said Melville. "So, you have to say to yourself 'I may only be six feet tall, but I am going to play with the six-foot-seven-inch or the six-foot-eight-inch athletes.' You have to think that you are the biggest and the best on the court at that moment."

With Melville leading the charge to the tune of a team-high 20 kills and 27 digs, the Knights battled to take down the Seminoles in five-set fashion. With the win, UCF would move on to the second round for the first time since 2003, where the Knights would face the University of Florida. Unfortunately, UCF would go on to lose to the Gators, 3-0.

In three NCAA Tournament matches between 2019 and 2020, Melville played an instrumental role, showing up in all 13 of the Knights' sets while totaling a team-high 53 kills and 62 digs. 

Today, Melville is using all of her different experiences within the game to help lead and continue the success through the next generation of Knights.

"We have a lot of new kids and a lot of new faces this year, but we have so much talent," said Melville. "To be able to wrangle everyone in and work in one, unified direction is going to be super important for us this year."

Melville has proven to be a leader on the court and in the locker room for this young Knights squad.

"I think being a leader can be really hard because you have to understand all of the different people and characteristics on your team," said Melville. "So, I am trying to do a better job of understanding an individual and thinkig about how I can connect with them as much as I can to push them to be better. Some people you can be stern and strict with, while others need a hug and someone to cry with. So, just to find that balance and see what different people need is what good leaders are made of and I think everyone on this team works toward that."

To coach Dagenais and the rest of the staff, Melville's leadership has not gone unnoticed.

"McKenna leads in a couple of different ways," said coach Dagenais. "She leads by example first and foremost. She goes out there and leaves it all on the floor every single day. She is also very vocal in terms of motivation. She is not afraid to say things that need to be said and she is big on encouragement, but she is not afraid to motivate either. I think that as she has grown older, she has learned how each player might be differently motivated in each situation, and I think that is one of her strongest attributes as a leader."

Despite the early career success, Melville believes the team's success is far less about her, and more about the people around her.

"I have had an amazing team right behind me all the time," said Melville. "While I do have an important role in this team, I think all of us contribute in a meaningful way. I think, to win a championship, it's not necessarily about the teams that you are playing, but about the team you have with you, and I have a great team. We are all very close, so to be able to go out there and work as a unit, it makes us almost unstoppable.

"To me, UCF means a big family. It is such a big school, but at the same time, you feel like you are a part of something a lot bigger than yourself. I think it is super important to have that family structure and I think at UCF, we definitely have that."

As much as Melville has accomplished on the court, it is hard to believe that she is only just now entering her junior season, and as she looks to lead the Knights to more success on the national stage in 2020-21, Melville is continuing to add to her legacy.

"We never know what is going to be thrown at us, and every day is different, especially right now," said Melville. "We just look to go out there and continue to put our best foot forward, no matter what."