HOUGHTON - Kendall Ward resisted playing volleyball at first and "wanted to quit so bad" after her first practice at the YMCA. She stuck with it, though, much to the relief of Michigan Tech coach Matt Jennings, who is bringing in Ward, alongside three other freshmen this fall.
"She's going to come in ready to play at this level from the day she gets here," Jennings said of Ward, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter from suburban Chicago. "I just saw her play in Orlando, and she's got it."
Ward has enough talent to play at the Division I level, and the Naperville, Ill., native chose Tech over Division I Bucknell.
"Ultimately, I chose it because I really like the Division II balance of academics and athletics," Ward said. "Division I, I didn't want to just play volleyball. What really sold me is the community."
She didn't know a thing about the Houghton community, or the Upper Peninsula, for that matter, until previous Tech assistant coach Nic Paquiz contacted her.
"When he first said it was in Michigan, I thought it would be three hours away. I didn't even know there was a part of Michigan above Wisconsin," Ward said.
That said, she's never really liked the big city - "You're anonymous," she said - and Ward fell in love with Houghton during two separate visits.
Paquiz, who taught private volleyball lessons to Ward at the 1st Alliance volleyball club, contacted her shortly after he started at Tech in 2012, and even though he just recently left to take an assistant coach job at Eastern Michigan, Ward never debated changing her decision to come to Houghton.
"It was really tough because he was the person who introduced me, but I loved the school so much, (him leaving) didn't really affect my decision," Ward said. "I really like Matt and trust him. I never reconsidered it."
Ward figures to make an immediate impact, a situation her previous volleyball experience has more than prepared her for. She was a three-year starter at Naperville Central High School in one of the most competitive prep volleyball areas in the country. She helped the Redhawks to a 28-9 record during her senior season, including a regional final loss to the eventual Illinois High School Association Class 4A state champion.
She started playing at the club level in seventh grade at Sports Performance, before moving on to 1st Alliance, where she spent several years. At the request of Jennings, she moved to Club Fusion so she could work more on her back-row play and becoming a six-rotation player. All three programs are among the best in the Midwest and regularly finish in the top 10 in the nation.
"She comes from a pedigree of volleyball that is at an elite level," Jennings said. "The clubs she's been a part of are at the epicenter of Chicagoland volleyball, which is such a good environment athletically, let alone for volleyball."
Alongside 6-2 middle blocker Sylvie Rokosh, Ward will be the tallest player on the team, which certainly isn't unfamiliar territory for her.
"I had my growth spurt really young. I've always stood out," said Ward, who has three older siblings. "This past year was the first year I wasn't the tallest person on my team. That was kind of weird."
Height isn't everything for Jennings, whose tallest players besides Rokosh and Ward are a trio of 5-foot-10 juniors, but it helps.
"It is a big deal, and you can't teach it," Jennings said, "but the thing is is that's not what makes her good."
Her skill sets her apart, and Jennings hopes the last few months of playing six rotations will translate well to the college level. In any case, Ward, who also considered Emory and Washington University, is eager to get to Houghton and make a difference. She'll be majoring in accounting, but the 4.0 GPA high school graduate is considering a double major in computer science.
"I'm just really excited to be in Houghton for the next few years," Ward said. "I really think it's the perfect place for me."