Webster seniors Sam Kersting and Jenny Howard have been playing volleyball for 26 years combined. They’ve played at their high schools and club teams and have traveled across the country from California to Minnesota to Miami playing the sport they love. And so when the volleyball team started the season 4-5, they felt the pressure to succeed in their last season of competitive volleyball.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure on us to perfect our systems,” Howard said. “I think it’s a good thing and a bad thing. I think we should be the best we’ve ever been because of our talent and because we’ve been playing together for so long.”
Since conference play began however, the Gorloks have gone 9-2 in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) and are third in the conference. Both Kersting and Howard credited a speech that Head Volleyball Coach Merry Graf gave to the team when they began conference play.
“Coach (Graf) brought up that if we finish out strong we have the chance to tie our wins from last year,” Kersting said. “It feels really rough right now, but if you look at it, it’s actually not—we’re still on track to do very well.”
Graf said that she just wanted to help the team focus on their conference schedule.
“I told the team, ‘We only have about a month left of your season. You need to make sure you’re enjoying yourself. If you’re playing with your heart, and you’re having fun—things are going to come together nicely for us on the court,’” Graf said.
Last season, the volleyball team set a program record for wins with 26, won the SLIAC conference tournament and earned a berth to the NCAA tournament.
Then, as now, Kersting led the Gorloks in kills, and she is the all-time Webster leader in attack percentage (.354), but she nearly didn’t come to Webster at all. In her senior year of high school Kersting said that she was approached by Indiana State very late in the year, but accepted their offer to play volleyball under a full-ride scholarship at the NCAA Division I school.
Kersting has ambivalent feelings toward her former school. She said that she misses some of the advantages that a division I school can provide—like individualized training, fraternities, sororities and the number of on-campus organizations and events. She left because she found the schedule of a division-I program to be too demanding.
“I regret leaving (Indiana State), but I don’t regret coming here (Webster),” Kersting said. “At Indiana State you are an athletic student, and at Webster you are a student-athlete.”
Howard said that she had opportunities to play at NCAA Division I and Division II schools for volleyball as well, but chose to come to Webster because Graf allowed her to play her favored position (offense instead of defense). She also chose Webster because it was more accommodating of her desire to study biology than larger schools. She said that Webster has labs that other universities do not.
Graf said that academics are the most important thing that she focuses on when she brings in a recruit to Webster and last year the volleyball team won the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award with a cumulative GPA of 3.48.
Volleyball has been a large part of both Kersting’s and Howard’s lives, but both very nearly didn’t play volleyball at Webster. Howard said that after high school she was burnt out on volleyball and very nearly gave up the sport. After her first and only season at Indiana State Kersting said that she thought she would not play volleyball anymore.
“I thought, ‘I’m literally never touching a volleyball again,’” Kersting said.
She said that she’s still not really sure what made her decide to play volleyball again. Graf said that when she heard that Sam might not play volleyball at all, she did her best to convince her to come back to the sport.
“I said—‘Sam you’re too good of a player not to play,’” Graf said.
And now Kersting identifies herself as a volleyball player.
“I’m still not even really sure, but it’s who I was. It’s just, I’m Sam and I play volleyball,” Kersting said. “I felt I would regret it more if I didn’t play than if I did.”
Despite identifying as volleyball players, both Kersting and Howard have dealt with recurring leg injuries in their time at Webster, causing them to question whether they want to continue playing. Kersting said that her knee problems are so painful that even if she had another year of eligibility she would not play. Howard, who missed large portions of last season with injuries, took a slightly different view.
“I’m going to miss it a lot, but my body feels like it’s time to wind down a bit,” Howard said. “But if someone offered me another year of eligibility? I’d probably take it.”
Kersting said that she is interested in staying involved with volleyball, even coaching.
“Last year I was really set on being a college coach (one day),” Kersting said. “I love the idea of being a coach, but it would be a lot of work.”