It’s been more than 20 years since Kathy Gillen first opened fall practice as a head volleyball coach. But the feeling never gets old.
Just as they are every year, Gillen’s goose bumps were present on Monday as she unlocked the gymnasium doors at Eagan High School to start a new season.
The sensation only intensified as the first day went on. That’s bound to happen when your best player only got better in the offseason.
Taylr McNeil came to Eagan last fall as a transfer from then-defending Class 3A state champion Lakeville North. The Star Tribune all-metro first team selection amassed nearly 500 kills in her first season at Eagan. She delivered 28 of those during a thrilling five-set upset over her former team during a South Suburban Conference match last September.
Yet Gillen thought there might be more to squeeze out of one of the state’s best players. She noticed it on Monday starting with the first set of drills. “Through two minutes, I could tell she’s much more confident and sound,” Gillen said.
Funny what an increased comfort level can do for a player. “It was so different coming in here, but now this is my gym,” McNeil said. “I feel like I can be myself more, and that’s awesome.”
The 6-1 junior outside hitter is again at the center of the Wildcats’ offense. Gillen has noticed growth in more than just relaxation.
“She was almost like a newborn last year,” Gillen said. “She’s so much more of a leader. Coming into a new school, you worry about stepping on some toes. The leadership is showing through a lot more already. This year, she’ll add to our chemistry. She knows this is her place, and it’s a great fit.”
McNeil is no stranger to high expectations. As a freshman, she committed to follow her sister, Kellie, to the Gophers.
“I expect a lot,” McNeil said. “The biggest thing is when I’m hard on myself, and that’s how I get better. I love this game. I just can’t wait for matches.”
More reason for her coach to get the shivers.
“She raises the level of practice in the gym,” Gillen said.