Swinging for success: Two front-row freshmen are killing it on volleyball court


Asha Blake

The Kent State Women’s Volleyball team joins up for a huddle during a time-out. The Flashes played Cornell Sept. 3 but were beaten 3-1.

John Hilber, Reporter

When freshmen right side Mia Soerensen and outside hitter Mackenzie McGuire came to Kent State, they never thought they would play so much so soon.

Out of the volleyball team’s 17 games this season, McGuire, who leads the team in kills, has started in 16. Soerensen, who is fourth in kills, has started nine.

“I definitely did not expect to get that much starting action right away,” Soerensen said. “Something that I’ve had to work on is being mindful in games because I just freaked out playing for the first time at the college level. It’s taken me longer than I thought it would to adjust, but I’m adjusting well now and definitely mixing up where I am hitting.”

Don Gromala, who coached the program from 2012-2021, recruited the players. Coach Haley Eckerman, who took over in March 2022, had barely seen the women even play before they came to campus.

By preseason, Eckerman saw they had potential.

“I knew that they could come in and challenge the team and be someone out there competing every day for a position,” Eckerman said. “They’re able to come in right away and always know where they’re at and always push hard.”

The first-year coach’s team is 11-6 overall. The Flashes are 2-4 in the Mid-American Conference –  third place in the MAC East.

Soerensen has 102 kills on the season and has totaled two solo blocks.

McGuire, who has totaled 210 kills, is third in kills in the MAC. She has scored the most points for her team at 231.

Outside hitter Mackenzie McGuire hits the ball back over the net as the opposing team sets up a block against Cornell Sept. 3. McGuire led her team in kills that game with 15. (Asha Blake)

Senior outside hitter Savannah Matthews is next best with 171 kills. McGuire said she goes to Matthews for on- and off-court advice. The two “have a really good relationship.”

In McGuire’s first game of the season Aug. 26, she earned only two kills. She hit double digits in the following five battles.

She saw her best performances Sept. 9 against Murray State and Sept. 10 versus Charleston Southern, totaling 24 kills in each game. The outside hitter even won MAC East offensive player of the week on Sept. 12.

McGuire attributes this improvement to a change in mindset.

“I’ve been really trying to push myself and make myself better and be able to adjust to how quick it is,” McGuire said. “I feel like doing the little things has helped me be able to see playing time, and I’m really focused on not thinking about it as a whole and just breaking it down.”

McGuire started playing volleyball at nine years old. She played club volleyball with Ultimate Performance out of Jenks, Okla. for nine years.

At the end of her fourth high school season at Broken Arrow High School, McGuire won the Gatorade Oklahoma Player of the Year.

“It was really special,” she said, “because I was one of the three from Broken Arrow on the volleyball team that has ever gotten that.”

Despite the nearly 14-hour drive from home, Kent State was an easy choice for McGuire. She committed to KSU on Aug. 1, 2021.

“I love everything about it,” McGuire said. “I just love the campus, so it was really easy to come in here. I met with the professors, and I felt the program for academics was great.”

Eckerman said McGuire brings this positive energy to the M.A.C. Center court.

“She’s goofy and very fun to be around,” she said. “I was a little worried with her being so far away from home, but it has been a great transition.”

In her first collegiate match against UAlbany Aug. 26, Soerensen totaled four kills. In her following four games played, she did not hit over 10.

Then, she made 12 kills a piece Sept. 10 against Murray State and Sept. 15 against Cleveland State. Her first solo block came in a Sept. 24 game with Bowling Green.

This growth has brought out a different side to the front-row threat.

“Mia came in very shy, didn’t speak much, didn’t smile much, really didn’t say anything,” Eckerman said. “But the last couple of weeks, she’s gotten to where she’s comfortable with her game and figuring out where she fits in on the team, to where she’s smiling in practice, and she’s laughing and making jokes.”

Soerensen hails from Meadville, Penn. and played for the Academy Volleyball Cleveland club team for four years. She also played for Meadville High School.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recruiting process was a different experience.

“We had online meetings with different colleges, so I didn’t get a really good feel until I came onto campus,” said Soerensen, who committed to Kent State on Oct. 9, 2020. “I came a couple times before I decided where I wanted to commit, and being with the team and the atmosphere here made me want to choose Kent.”

While transitioning from high school competition to D1 volleyball was not easy, the women were ready for the challenge.

Soerensen said she felt she had a good foundation set up before her season started.

“The club I was at definitely prepared me well to play at the college level,” Soerensen said. “And I was also here in the summer, so I got to hang out with the girls and see what practice was like and how things are run. It was definitely a good experience.”

Navigating the “student” side of being a student-athlete was a transition for McGuire. She is majoring in exercise science and physiology; Soerensen is studying neuroscience.

“It’s very different because in high school you have a set schedule – you go from a certain time to a certain time,” she said. “Then in college, you have to balance your own schedule. It’s spread out, and getting used to managing your time is very different.”

Although the adjustment to college brought change, the rookies’ passion for volleyball remains consistent.

“Volleyball is an out for me, an out of real life,” McGuire said. “I don’t have to worry about homework and it’s like therapy and I feel relaxed and I just have fun whenever I’m around everyone”

Kent State freshman Mackenzie McGuire lines with the rest of her team as they wait for the serve Sept. 24. The team lost to Bowling Green 3-0. (Matthew Brown)

For Soerensen, the feeling of playing keeps her motivated.

“It is a flow,” she said. “I feel at peace, and the energy when we’re playing is unbelievable. I crave that, so it makes me work hard.”

Eckerman saw her own freshman-year success as an outside hitter at the University of Texas, where she was named Big 12 freshman player of the year in 2011. She played in every match of her first collegiate season.

Speaking from her own experience as a first-year starter, the four-time All-American gave advice to her stars.

“They’re here for a reason,” Eckerman said. “When you get to a point of trying to live up to other people’s expectations, that’s when the mistakes come and that’s when you overthink things. They should go in, be themselves and not put the pressure on themselves to uphold something. It’s just going out and being free and playing.”

John Hilber is a reporter. Contact him at [email protected].