Hamilton, ON- When Emma McKinnon finally returned to the court, she called it super fun. In her first practice back, she wasn’t allowed to jump but she still enjoyed passing, playing defence and doing the other parts of the game.
After a while, the second-year McMaster Marauders outside hitter was full-go at practice. She was soon jumping and hitting as well. Her presence has been noticeable upon her return for the McMaster women’s volleyball team.
It’s a team that had won seven games in a row before losing to the Waterloo Warriors on Jan. 21. They beat the then-number two ranked Brock Badgers (defending OUA champions) and Toronto Varsity Blues on the road. Those were McKinnon’s first two games back.
Then they faced the York Lions in their first home game of 2023 on Jan. 18. It was their third game in six days.
“I really liked from the shoulders up, as we proceeded in the match,” McMaster head coach Tim Louks noted. “Because from the shoulders down, is pretty darn tired right now.”
With that tight schedule, they focused on recovery between games – barely touching a volleyball the day before the game. Against the Lions, they traded the first two sets before winning the final two by 25-20 scores each.
Two key words defined the game, according to Louks: joy and adaptability. Their adaptability comes from resilience and trust. It comes from adapting to make the right shots.
McKinnon and her teammates showed that adaptability. Sullie Sundara had 20 points and 18 kills while Ana Strbac had 18.5 points and 12 kills – both career-highs.
Chayse Victoria and McKinnon were playing their first home game back from injury. McKinnon notched nine kills, 11.5 points and 21 digs in four sets. Victoria had 13 assists.
Victoria helped support Christina Stratford as a fellow setter, according to Louks. “So if Chayse doesn’t enter, proverbial different world but likely a different outcome,” he added.
The head coach noted how McKinnon didn’t look reserved. “She was in a place,” he said. “I’m back, I’m doing, I’m going so that was fun to watch her ride back there.”
The path to get to that point hasn’t been easy. The Milton native suffered two injuries. She hurt her knee in the summer and then hurt her ankle recovering from the previous injury. Aside from the COVID cancelled season, it was the longest she’s been without volleyball.
She said the process was really tough. At first it was easier because she didn’t realize how long she would be out for. The longer she was out, the tougher it became. She would work out without playing volleyball.
During McKinnon’s time off, she watched her teammates practice and saw the shots they worked on. She would then imagine herself hitting those shots in her return. “I would kind of be able to see the movement and try and implement that when I come back,” she said. “Focusing on that helped me.”
McKinnon describes herself as a vision learner. She likes visualizing what she’s going to do – including seeing what others do and imagining herself doing the same. In addition to visualizing, she works on the shots she needs to work on at practice, getting reps and building confidence.
“I know that I’ve been able to do them at practice,” McKinnon added. “I just picture myself doing it – how I did it at practice – and then implement that into the game.”
Coming into the York game, she set two goals for herself: stay moving on passes – “I have to get the ball before the ball gets me,” she said – and hitting with an explosive approach. “I think that I did that today,” she added.
Hitting is her favourite part of the game – being able to crush the ball and make the shots. However, in her first season, she didn’t focus on hitting as much. This year, she’s dialed in on her shot making – seeing where the defenders are and hitting the ball to where they’re not.
“It becomes a little game,” McKinnon added. “If I get them on a short one, then they’ll move up and then I’ll hit a deep one because they adjusted. So kind of like that back and forth kind of thing.”
In her first season, she averaged 2.83 kills per set. This season, the number’s currently at 1.71 and could get higher. Against Waterloo and York, she had a season-high nine kills. Against Brock and York, she had two service aces each.
McKinnon will continue to work on those shots in practice and games. She’ll hit some of those shots. She’ll enjoy doing so. Before all that happens, she’ll likely have already visualized them as well.
Featured Image: McMaster Athletics