Katie McKiel admitted to a little hesitation when she and her Manitou Springs teammates first took the court for the 3A regionals Nov. 1 without star outside hitter Nicole Mack.
McKiel and Mack - the strong, sophomore, outside-hitting tandem - had led the Mustangs to an undefeated record, and now Mack was sidelined with a sesamoid fracture in her left foot.
You could see it, ever so slightly, in the Mustangs' eyes as they stared across their home court toward Grand Valley.
However, those glances of doubt quickly transformed into gleams of confidence after every one of McKiel's 25 combined authoritative kills against Grand Valley and Pagosa Springs helped the Mustangs reach the 3A state tournament.
"It was very kind of scary losing her," McKiel said. "Everyone just believed in the team and I knew that I had to step up as a leader, even though I was just a sophomore. I knew the team trusted me to do my job and I needed to respect that."
McKiel, The Gazette's Volleyball 3A and Below Peak Performer of the Year, and senior Riley Witham helped keep the Mustangs' state title aspirations alive. Mack returned for the state tournament as Manitou Springs marched its way to the state final against Eaton.
"She really stepped up her game even though I wasn't there," Mack said. "She comforted the team and really stepped up."
The 5-foot-9 hitter set a single-game school record by recording 34 kills in a 3-2 victory against Gunnison in the state tournament. Ironically, Mack would later tie the record with 34 kills of her own in the Mustangs' 3-0 loss to Eaton in thefinal.
McKiel finished the season with a career-high 393 kills - 93 more than her freshman year - and tied with Mack to lead the Tri-Peaks West with 4.5 kills per set after leading the league last year at a 3.4 clip. McKiel also showed a tremendous improvement at the net with 73 blocks, compared to 20 in 2012.
Both players admitted they have thrived on the court together since seventh grade.
"Oh, absolutely," McKiel said. "I think we both have this understanding that we do think together that our accomplishments wouldn't be anything without the other one."
Said Mack: "It's really great because we can really help each other out because we know what we are both saying and kind of just feed off each other."
Coach Carol Benedict said McKiel really rose to the occasion in regionals and was a huge factor in the Mustangs' postseason run because of her high volleyball IQ.
"She is just really tough to stop," the second-year coach said. "Blockers can't stop her because she reads the block and floor well. People that see hitters hit hard just think they're good, but she has the power and is also very smart. There is so much to hitting - reading where the block is, reading where the defense is. She is just one of the best players I have seen at that."
McKiel, who commutes to Denver three days a week to practice and play with the Colorado Volleyball Association, is committed to improving her defense and reaching a higher level of play. It's still crazy for her to think she is only a sophomore, and she realizes there is still so much for her and her teammates to learn and accomplish.
It is those endless lessons that really drive her to remain focused and dedicated.
"That's what inspires me to play the game and it's why I have such a strong passion for it," McKiel said. "There is no limit to how much you can do in volleyball because there are so many different skills you have to have. There are different ways of mastering it and you can increase in everything.
"That's a really cool thing about volleyball and why I love it so much."