Plum grad Yocca finds success in first college season
It's not often that freshmen come in and start right away at any level of college sports.
But Plum graduate Khaynen Yocca, at 6-foot-6, bucked that trend this spring for the Rivier College (N.H.) men's volleyball team in NCAA Division III.
“It's not the norm (for freshman to start), and the last person I had start as a freshman graduated last year,” said Raiders head coach Craig Kolek who just finished his 20th season at the helm of the program.
“(Yocca) has a kind of a natural knack on offense, and you could tell that he knew what to do. He had a ton of potential with coaching.”
Yocca took over as the Raiders' starting middle hitter from the start of the season and never looked back. As is the case for freshman college athletes, nothing could have prepared Yocca for his first season of college volleyball.
“I like it. It's much faster paced than anything else I've played (before),” said Yocca, who is majoring in history. “(There's) definitely (a difference in) the size of everybody else and the people who have been working out for three and four years who hit harder, block harder and are faster, too.”
Yocca, a three-time WPIAL Section 3-AAA first-team selection, stepped in and finished the season No. 1 on the team in hitting percentage (.388), fifth in both kills (187) and kills per set (1.72) and fourth in service aces per set (0.18).
A newly developed jump serve helped, Yocca said.
“I started the jump serve at the end of high school, and this year, I practiced (it),” said Yocca, who finished second in the voting for the Great Northeast Athletic Conference's Freshman of the Year.
“I just have to work on being quicker, work on my hands, and being faster.”
Yocca's growth at the middle hitter position helped Rivier, 22-11 overall and 10-4 in conference play, earn a spot in the GNAC men's volleyball championship game where the Raiders fell to Wentworth University in five sets.
The Raiders are a perennial playoff contender, and they have won seven GNAC volleyball titles over the past decade. In 2014, Rivier spent time as the No. 1 ranked men's volleyball team in Division III.
“I'll definitely remember (the GNAC championship game) going into next year,” Yocca said. “It was one of the best times that I've had and some of the best volleyball I've ever played.”
Yocca wasn't alone in his freshman year at Rivier as fellow 2015 Plum graduate and teammate Nathan Kunkel also made the nearly 600-mile journey to continue playing volleyball.
A 6-foot-3 right outside hitter, Kunkel had a solid freshman season coming off the bench, and he gave the Raiders quality minutes the entire season.
“(College volleyball) is so different,” said Kunkel, who is majoring in nursing. “(In high school), we were the old guys and the veterans. I realized I was playing college volleyball when we played a Canadian team and the game was faster and I had to think quicker. I didn't realize it, but the psychology behind volleyball (at the college level) is amazing.”
Kunkel had to wait his turn behind two other upperclassmen at the right outside hitter position.
“The door is wide open for him to be our second outside hitter (next season),” said Kolek, who was recently named GNAC Coach of the Year. “The goal is to get him stronger and to jump a little bit harder but also help him build on ball control.”
Kunkel saw action in 14 matches this season. His playing time increased as the season progressed. He put together a nine-kill performance against GNAC rival Mount Ida and added eight kills in a 3-0 win over conference foe Albertus Magnus late in the season.
“I'm looking forward to next year because I'm not going to be a freshman anymore, and I'm looking to step up and take on a (bigger) role,” Kunkel said.
Kolek likes what he sees in Kunkel and is excited to help him reach his full potential.
“He has impressive skills,” Kolek said. “He works hard and goes after it aggressively.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.