The 2017 Hillsdale College volleyball team won 12 more, and lost eight fewer games than the 2016 team. That kind of remarkable improvement didn't go unnoticed at the national level, as two of the Chargers' top players joined a long list of All-American players coach Chris Gravel has produced.
Junior right-side hitter Paige VanderWall was named Second-Team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Junior outside hitter Kara Vyletel was named honorable mention All-American by that same organization. The awards were announced on the AVCA's website Tuesday afternoon.
The top two attackers on the 2017 Great Midwest Athletic Conference champions, VanderWall and Vyletel were both terrific players before the 2017 season. But this year, they took their games to new heights and helped lead Hillsdale to a 28-4 record and a berth in the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional Tournament. Both players shouldered a lot of responsibility on the court, playing "all the way around," having to contribute to the team's offense and defense. But their athleticism, work ethic and dedication all paid off in a fantastic season, for them individually as well as for the team.
A lefthander with dynamic athletic ability, VanderWall's path to her first All-American honor is a compelling one. She stepped into the lineup right away as a freshman in 2015 and established herself as a force. But on November 13, 2015, during a win over Ashland, she suffered a catastrophic knee injury that kept her out of the lineup for the Chargers' postseason forays into the GLIAC and regional tournaments. Months of rehab followed, as big a test of will as any athlete can face. VanderWall returned in time for the 2016 season and not only showed no ill-effects of her injury, but improved her numbers across the board. But that would only be a hint of great things to come.
In 2017, VanderWall took her game to a completely new level, accumulating 324 kills with a .325 hitting percentage. Her hitting percentage was not only an 80-point improvement from 2016, but represents an extremely efficient number for the high number of kills and attempts she had through the season.
In her first two seasons, VanderWall had 15 service aces and 250 digs. She eclipsed both numbers during her 2017 campaign, picking up 32 service aces and 273 digs as she lived up to her increased on-court responsibilities for the team. Off the court, she was named a team captain, a rare honor as a junior in this program, and consistently displayed selfless leadership to her younger teammates.
Her regular season was capped by being named the G-MAC Player of the Year, leading the Chargers to a first-place tie in the conference's West Division. She then went out and played like a conference player of the year in the G-MAC championship match November 18, leading Hillsdale to a 3-1 win over Findlay with 15 kills and a .378 hitting percentage. She reached double digit kills in 20 of the team's 32 matches and averaged 3.06 kills per set. VanderWall had 11 double-doubles, with season-highs of 18 kills against Findlay September 12 and 16 digs at Ohio Dominican October 28.
Like VanderWall, Vyletel immediately played her way into the starting lineup upon her arrival to Hillsdale College in the fall of 2015. Her incredible athleticism was apparent to anyone who watched her play for just a few minutes, but Vyletel has refined her game in impressive fashion over the course of her career, and blossomed into a complete threat in her third season in 2017.
Vyletel also hit career-highs in kills (372), hitting percentage (.278) and kills per set (3.72) this season. Her hitting percentage shot up 71 points from her sophomore season, as she generated 7 more kills on 137 fewer hitting attempts. Her hitting accuracy, court awareness and the varieity of shots she was capable of delivering were all keys in Hillsdale's offense ranking in the top 10 nationally in hitting percentage throughout the season.
Vyletel also had 15 service aces, 175 digs and 26 total blocks on the season. She was a frequent target of opposing teams' serving, but improved her serve receive percentage throughout the season, even with the added pressure of being a target of her opponents. Through October 14, she committed 25 serve receive errors in 63 sets played. However, in 37 sets played after October 14, she committed just 6 serve receive errors. That's the surest sign of a player who showed the rare ability to mature and improve in the middle of a season.
As she looks ahead to her senior season, Vyletel stands just 10 kills away from 1,000 in her career. Joining the 1,000 kill club, a likelihood for both Vyletel and VanderWall, is just another honor that awaits these two special student-athletes.