Let me tell you a story about a young lady by the name of Kelli Greene-Agnew. Following the passing of my nephew Lincoln, I moved to Phoenix from Flagstaff. I started teaching Spanish at Sandra Day O’Connor High School and Kelli was a student there. Kelli had already been one of my athletes for a couple of years as I was commuting from Flagstaff to Phoenix to coach for RPM Sand. It was nice to have a familiar face at the school and, in true Kelli fashion, she took great care of me popping in to say hi, chat volleyball, or to bring me delicious pumpkin cookies from time to time. She would even write messages on my board if I wasn’t in my room to tell me to have a great day. Truly a genuine, thoughtful, and selfless person.
Kelly committed to play D1 beach volleyball at LSU. Her senior year in high school I worked with she and Allison Coens who would also attend LSU. Kelli went off to LSU where she won 77 collegiate matches mostly in the 2’s and played in the NCAA tournament for 3 years. Kelli’s senior season came to an end in 2022 with an absolute battle with Florida State’s 2’s pair of Madison Fitzpatrick and Alaina Chacon and I was standing on the sidelines right behind her player box in Gulf Shores for the occasion.
Following her senior year, she still had a red shirt season available. To be able to get the graduate degree she wanted, and be a little closer to home in Arizona, Kelli transferred to the preseason (and current as of this post) #1 team in the country in UCLA. Having had so much success at LSU, Kelli found herself faced with the challenge of trying to find her place in the lineup at UCLA. She played at the 2’s, 4’s, 5’s, and was often also out of the lineup. Obviously as a competitor, you want to do everything you can to be able to compete for your team and especially in your final season of eligibility.
This weekend the Pac-12 championships started and Kelli was not in the lineup. The #1 UCLA Bruins faced defeat at the hands of the Stanford Cardinal and were forced into the contenders bracket. Defending National Champion USC was also upset by #9 Cal and were forced into the contender’s bracket as well.
A few minutes before UCLA faced the University of Arizona, my phone rang. It was Kelli.
Kelly: “Coach Nick, I’m freaking out! I don’t know what to do and I didn’t know who to call.”
Me: “What’s going on Kelli? Are you ok?”
Kelli: “Yes, but they are putting me in the 1’s at the Pac-12 championships with no prep.”
Me: “Time to go play with a chip on your shoulder! This is the opportunity you have been waiting for. You totally got this”
Today is April 28th 2023. Since April 8th 2023 Kelli had played exactly 2 collegiate matches. One of them just happened to be a loss to Arizona at the 4’s. Now she was being asked to step in with no prep at the 1's against Arizona and with very little experience with the partner she was going to play with, in a situation where, if she lost, not only would her team be in danger of being eliminated from the PAC-12 championships, but she also may never see the court again as a collegiate player. That kind of pressure could make someone fold.
Kelli and I have talked multiple times this year throughout the season about her situation and how to handle it with grace. My advice to her has always been to just stay ready. To make sure that every time she gets the opportunity, she goes out and leaves no doubt on the court.
Like I said, the kind of pressure Kelli was about to face could make someone fold, but not Kelli. She absolutely FLEW around the court creating opportunity after opportunity on offense with her intense defensive play! She seized the moment winning 21-10, 21-16 against Arizona and she and her partner clinched the duel for UCLA.
I was so excited for her and so proud of her! But it wasn’t over yet! They advanced through the contender’s bracket to face defending national champion USC. Their counterpart would be USC’s 1’s pair of Megan Craft and Delaney Maple. Megan Craft is the #1 ranked collegiate player according to collegebeachvb.com and she and Delaney Maple were 25-1 going into the match. With one match together under their belts and little time to prep, Kelli and her partner Lexy Denaburg stepped into the sand once again. After a hard fought first set, thst they found themselves on the losing end of, it was time to dig deep and see what they could do. UCLA's 1's pairs had not taken a single set off of USC's 1's pairs in their previous meetings this year so the pressure was on again! The second set of the match was back and forth and came down to the wire. When the last ball hit the sand, Kelli and Lexy celebrated a 24-22 victory! UCLA had already won 2 duel points at the 2’s and 4’s. Their match along with the 3’s and 5’s matches all went 3 sets. In collegiate beach volleyball during conference and national tournaments, when the 3rd duel point is scored, the duel doesn’t finish. The 5’s won their match and sealed the duel against USC so Kelli and Lexy's match didn't finish. UCLA now found themselves in the semifinal.
The semifinal match pitted UCLA against the team that had knocked them into the contender’s bracket and again it was a win or go home scenario. UCLA’s 1’s had lost to Stanford in that duel and Kelli would be facing a very good 1’s pair of Xolani Hodel (who had represented the USA internationally earlier this year) and her partner Madi Kriz. The first set was another epic battle and Kelli and Lexy came out on top! Again the second set didn’t get to finish because the duel had been sealed by another pair on her team. UCLA had come through the contender’s bracket all the way into the PAC-12 championship game with Kelli playing in the 1’s spot. Kelli slapped the sticker on the bracket to show UCLA had advanced to the finals and then celebrated with her team.
Her match in the final, again, did not get to finish but the team was victorious and UCLA was crowned the PAC-12 champions. To put this in perspective for those of you who don’t follow collegiate beach volleyball too closely, a PAC-12 team has won every single NCAA National Championship in the history of the sport and Kelli and her team were standing alone as champions of the PAC-12!
It’s an incredible achievement and I was so honored to have gotten to share even more moments with an amazing kid as we talked between matches each time. You see, I have coached hundreds and hundreds of athletes at this point in my near 20 year career. I am one of those people who will always respect everyone around me, but people have to EARN my support after they finish their time in the sand with me. Throughout the years I have flown across the country to surprise kids for their senior night. I have shown up unannounced at the NCAA National championships to stand behind their box as they compete. I have driven through the night to show up for a player whose parents couldn’t be there to support them at the National Championships because their sister had cancer. I have coached them in AVP qualifiers and main draws. I have shown up to their weddings, been there for the births of their children, and been their shoulder to cry on when someone close to them has passed away. I don’t do this for everyone. Those things are earned day in and day out and over a long period of time, but for those kids who are humble, go out of their way for others, and can be truly and genuinely selfless, when my phone rings or a text comes through, I will ALWAYS be there to answer the call. I’m so proud of Kelli for staying true to who she is as a person, an athlete, and a fighter. Her moment came, she seized it, and as she makes her way through the last week of her collegiate beach volleyball career, no one can take that away from her!
So to all of those athletes out there aspiring to be something great, just remember that when all the sand washes off and you put the volleyball down for the last time, what will matter is HOW you went about what you did. How you made the people around you feel, and who you are without volleyball thst will define you. Stay ready so you don't have to get ready, and be genuinely you, because you is great!