By Grant DeVivo
Most volleyball experts could agree that the game often boils down to two elements: serving and passing. A defensive specialist and a setter need to be on the same page if a team is to be successful. Stevenson women’s volleyball team is fortunate to have experts on both.
Enter sophomore setter Makala Thompson and senior defensive specialist Kayla Vaeth.
The two began working with each other in the fall of 2021 when Thompson joined the team as a first-year player. This season, the two have accounted for 429 of the team’s 748 set assists. They are also responsible for 59 of the team’s 148 serving aces and are a huge reason why the Mustangs have dominated their opponents in kills 829 to 635 while averaging 13.2 kills per set.
Their productivity has played a major part in Stevenson women’s volleyball’s 17-2 start this season with a 3-0 in-conference record.
Thompson, a native of Mt. Airy, Maryland, is making big strides in her career as the lead setter, and she is just a sophomore. With 11 kills and 274 assists this season, she has proved that she is an everyday contributor and leader to the team.
Thompson said that she feels that she has made big jumps from last year to this year as a player and a teammate and that she is excited to take on an early leadership role in her career.
“Usually, you do not have a sophomore or freshman as a setter, but I am the setter,” Thompson said about her role. “[Being the setter] is pretty cool. It is nice that I get to take that leadership role and [I cannot wait to] see where it takes me.”
Vaeth praised not just Thompson, but both setters for the work they do on the court. The other setter is freshman Samantha Simmers.
“They are both very good setters and play very good volleyball all around,” Vaeth commented. “I know when they are up there, they are going to do something good with the ball.”
The young guns of the team are also taking notice of Thompson’s performance and personality. Freshman middle hitter Sarah Kroedel praised Thompson for her sets and her ability to adjust.
“She will ask for feedback, and she can adjust so well,” Kroedel said of Thompson. “If you want a little tweak on something, you tell her, she will do it, and it will be dead on. She is pretty consistent with it, too. It is very nice to have someone whose consistency is always there.
“She is also someone on the court who knows the rotations,” Kroedel added. “It is very nice to have someone on the court who knows what they are doing and who is also a strong and powerful player.” Kroedel added that Thompson has made her a better player, and that she wants to become more open and available to learning as a result of watching Thompson.
Thompson has a very reliable defensive setter behind her in Vaeth. A native of Westminster, Maryland, Vaeth is dominating her senior season by posting 55 assists and 34 serving aces. She accomplished a milestone 1,000 career digs on Oct. 1 at Gettysburg College, thus helping her win MAC Player of the Week.
“I always go out and just try to do the best I can every game,” Vaeth said about her performance. “I try to not let the ball hit the floor. We have very good blockers and other players on our team that make it easier for me to do my job and be able to pick up balls.
“I just try to give it a hundred percent every time I am out there,” she added.
“[Kayla] is a great player and she proves it with her stats,” Thompson said of Vaeth. “Setters and liberos’ relationships are huge. If she doesn’t give us a good pass, then it is hard to run our offense. She does [give us great passes] though. She gives us good balls when we need them and makes amazing digs.”
According to Kroedel, Vaeth’s ability to save plays and maneuver pancake balls earned her the nickname “Pancake Princess” from her teammates.
“People say I like to ‘serve breakfast,’” Vaeth said with a laugh. “This year, it seems like that I have done [pancake plays] more [than any other year]. I am just trying to get the ball up [away from the floor], so if that is a pancake then that is a pancake!”
“9 times out of 10, she will get a pancake [ball],” Kroedel said of the origin of Vaeth’s nickname. “She will slide her hand under the ball, [the ball] will come up, and we can keep going.”
Seniors on a sports team are expected to take leadership roles and set examples for those to follow. According to her teammates, Vaeth has gone above and beyond leadership expectations.
“Most people do not have the hustle that she has, the drive and mindset,” Kroedel said, adding that Vaeth is a threat to the conference because of this. “She impacts a lot of the freshman and our other defensive specialists. She shows them how to be strong on the court and to take control of the back row.”
Thompson praised Vaeth’s positivity and welcoming attitude that helped her feel welcome during her freshman season last year.
“She is super supportive if you need her and need to talk to her,” Thompson said. “I think that is part of the reason why it was so easy for me last year as a freshman to come onto the team. She is very positive, and it has a big impact on the court.”
“If [the younger players] see the hard work, how much we put into it, and how much it means to us [seniors], then I feel like it is very good for the [younger players] to follow in our footsteps with,” Vaeth said about leadership, also saying that her entire senior class has done a great job taking a leadership role with her.
Vaeth’s career accomplishments have inspired her peers to one day do the same.
“I definitely want to have that little title under my name saying that I got a MAC player of the week,” Kroedel said. “[Kayla’s accomplishments] are very motivating.”
“Everyone wants to get over a thousand in something, right?!” Thompson said.
The Mustangs will be treated to at least one more year of the master of pancakes. Vaeth confirmed that she is returning for a fifth season in 2023 as a result of a change in majors. As much as she appreciates the awards and accolades, she wants to maintain a team-first mentality.
“I am just going to keep trying to play every game and play the hardest I can,” Vaeth said about the rest of her career. “I am not really worried about numbers or anything. I’d rather just get the team wins so if that comes with awards, then it does.”
As fun and as successful as the 2022 season has been so far for Stevenson women’s volleyball, the job is still far from over. The team acknowledges that, so how do they go about continuing to bring the magic?
“As long as we keep our side in control, minimize our errors, and play our game, we will be fine,” Vaeth said.
After defeating a tough John Hopkins team on Friday night 3-1, the Mustangs will have a busy day today as they look to continue their winning ways with a doubleheader. First up is a home match vs. McDaniel College at 10 a.m. followed by another home match vs. Rowan at 2 p.m. Both matches will be at the Owings Mills Gymnasium at Stevenson University.