NCAA Tournament Appearance Perfect Sendoff for Millikin Volleyball Coach Debbie Kiick
Kiick has led the Big Blue Volleyball program for 23 seasons.
DECATUR, Ill. – It was not the way that Millikin Volleyball Coach Debbie Kiick wanted her last game to go.
Millikin was down early to Carthage 0-2 in the CCIW Conference Tournament on Thursday in the Griswold Center but fought back with consecutive set wins to tie it 2-2. The Big Blue led most of the fifth set tiebreaker, but after a 13-13 tie, the Firebirds scored twice to win the match.
For Kiick, who will be retiring after 23 seasons leading the Millikin Volleyball program, it could have been her final game.
But that ending wasn’t meant to be, as the Big Blue (22-11, 7-1 CCIW) earned a spot in the NCAA DIII Tournament. No. 5-seeded Millikin faces No. 4 seeded Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, in the opening round on Thursday, Nov. 16, at 7 p.m.
“It’s an amazing way to finish your career. Ending your career is bittersweet, and I’m ready for a little less stress. However, I’m so thankful to have this stress one more time,” Kiick said. “We have great girls, and they work so hard. I am happy for them, but I’m happy for me too. The way we lost to Carthage and to sit on that when you retire doesn’t show your life’s work. To get one more opportunity to stand on the sideline is a blessing, and I’m thrilled.”
The Big Blue are a young group – the roster includes no senior players – but have NCAA experience, qualifying last season. Two junior All-CCIW first-team team players lead the group in outside hitter Kailee Itzenhuiser and libero Sophia Howell. Itzenhuiser leads the team with 442 kills and is second in digs with 481, behind Howell’s team-high 557.
There have been times this season that Kailee has strapped the whole team on her back and said we are doing this,” Kiick said. “Sophia and Kailee are in on every point and are both key defenders for us. Our opponents have the lowest hitting percentage in the CCIW.”
The team wasn’t sure of their NCAA Tournament prospects after falling in the CCIW semifinals and they gathered in Griswold on Monday to watch the announcement to see if their ticket had been punched. The team celebrated another trip to the NCAAs but quickly got back to work.
“Getting this second chance to end the season, we must make the most of it. We got right back into the gym, and everyone was all in. We are excited to show our stuff again on the court,” Itzenhuiser said. “Cornell is a good team, and statistically, they are right about where we are. I think it is going to be a good match, and it will be a battle. I feel like we haven’t peaked yet, and there is more potential that we can give.”
A win over Cornell will have Millikin facing the winner between No. 1 seed Northwestern-St. Paul and No. 8 seed Edgewood on Friday at 7 p.m. Cornell College will stream all matches over the weekend through this link.
The Big Blue want to give Coach Kiick the ending to her career that she deserves.
“Since she is a grandmother and a mom, Coach Kiick definitely does have that feeling for us. She can be hard on us because she has expectations, but she also wants us to be empowered and be positive,” Howell said. “She wants what is best for us emotionally and physically. She always strives for us academically and to grow as a person. You know you can always go to her, and she will be there for you.”
In her 23 seasons at Millikin, Kiick has 535 career victories, and this year’s NCAA appearance is the sixth in her tenure. Before coming to Millikin in 2001, Kiick was an accomplished high school coach, leading programs in Warrensburg-Latham, Clinton, Mount Zion and Byron. After a total of 44 years coaching, it will take some getting used to step away, but Kiick is eager to have some more free time.
“I’m sure there will be moments when I feel a little empty. But when this is your lifestyle, you give up a lot. There are things that I don’t want to miss anymore. I have six grandchildren who are in sports, and I can be at all of their events,” Kiick said. “I’m looking forward to some hobbies. I love to bike ride. I’m crafty and would love to learn some woodworking. I’ve never had time to do stuff like that.”
With the team making consecutive NCAA appearances and not losing any graduating seniors, returning to coach next season is tempting, but Kiick wants the Big Blue’s next coach to hit the ground running.
“I would love to do another year. We have everybody back, and we have a competitive team, but I also feel at peace with leaving a full cupboard for the next head coach,” she said. “My advice for the next coach is that your work ethic has to be the best in the CCIW to win here. If you want your players to work hard, they have to see your work ethic. It’s all about recruiting, and you have to recruit people who will retain the program. You need to give the student-athletes the absolute best experience you can. I think those are three pillars.
During Millikin’s home game against DePauw University on Nov. 4, former players returned to pay tribute to Kiick and share some unforgettable memories.
“I thought I was going to be in tears. I’m a crier, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to hold it together,” she said. “My first recruiting class was there, and every time I saw another face, it filled me with more and more joy. I was very touched that they cared and came back.
“I am very blessed to have been able to coach at Millikin for 23 years. A lot of coaches don’t get that opportunity. I’ve enjoyed every day of it and I’m very thankful. I hope my legacy is that I would do anything for my athletes to help them develop. That I am not a person who would ever be outworked. That I’ve been a good solid role model to help them shape their futures and that I was a fierce competitor.”