Big sister rules: Spartans top Illinois in Kelsay sister showdown
From the beginning of preseason, senior setter Kristen Kelsay had Oct. 4 marked on the calender.
The date marked more than a rematch against Illinois, who beat the Spartans last season in a stunning 2-3 comeback victory.
It marked a reunion with her younger sister, who she hadn’t seen since early August.
Her sister, McKenna Kelsay, is a freshman setter for the Fighting Illini. It was a game the sisters had anticipated since McKenna signed with Illinois.
“We knew that we were going to play twice, once at Michigan State, once at Illinois,” Kristen said. “I knew this was going to be a very special place, this is my home. She’s been around here for three years, she knew exactly where the training room was. That was pretty special too, to have her here.
“It’s a special moment.”
MSU won the match in straight sets, 3-0 (25-15, 25-18, 25-17). Kristen was proud of the win for her team.
But being able to play against her younger sister for the first time in her life meant something more.
“The fact that she did such a great job out there, I’m very proud of her,” Kristen said after the match. “That’s probably the feeling I feel the most right now. It’s nice that we came out with the win, I think our team played well tonight. We can still get better. But I’m very proud of her being thrown in there and doing what she did.”
McKenna didn’t expect to get playing time, but recognizing the opportunity for her to face her older sister, Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly played her in sets two and three.
McKenna responded with a team-high 14 assists. It was the first game she had ever set.
“For sure, this is my biggest match,” McKenna said. “It’s really cool that I got to do it here with my sister and my parents and everything. “
McKenna had always followed in her sister’s footsteps.
When Kristen was in fifth grade, she made a life-changing decision — signing up to play with her middle school volleyball team.
“She said ‘Dad, I want to try out for volleyball with the fifth grade volleyball team,’” Bruce Kelsay, Kristen’s and McKenna’s father, said after the game. “(I said) ‘Go for it girl.’ And she was like ‘Dad, I think I want to play club (volleyball).’”
“Go for it girl,” he responded to his oldest daughter.
McKenna played soccer as a child, but soon switched to volleyball. McKenna said Kristen was the main reason she started playing volleyball.
“I saw her and the way she loved it, so I decided to start out,” McKenna said. “We would always go in the front yard and she’d hit at me and we’d set together. I give her all the credit to how I started playing.”
Kristen went on to have a stellar high school career at St. Francis (Ill.). Her team had a 33-3 record her senior year, and she led the squad to regional championships her junior and senior year.
When McKenna joined the St. Francis volleyball team as a freshman, Kristen was a senior.
When Kristen left for Michigan State, McKenna said she had big shoes to fill. McKenna did, however, lead St. Francis to a state championship during 2012 — her senior year.
A proud father, Bruce said watching his daughters face each other Friday night was a special experience.
“The fact that both of these girls are not only good athletes, but committed to become as good as they can academically, athletically, socially, it’s been a lot of fun as a father just to be able to sit back and watch them, encourage them and watch them develop,” he said.
Kristen wasn’t sure if she would have the opportunity to play against her sister. McKenna hadn’t got much playing time during the season.
Though they spent a year on the St. Francis high school volleyball team together, they had never played a match against one another.
When Hambly inserted McKenna into the matchup in set two, it was a huge moment for both sisters.
“It was such a special moment to be able to be out there on the floor with her,” Kristen said. “The fact that she got in there and ran that show, and I was out there too, that’s a once in a lifetime thing. And that’s something that my whole family just is so blessed to see that happen.”
To change the tone of the match in the 2012 home victory against MSU, Illinois changed setters midway through. On Friday night, Illinois did the same by inserting McKenna.
Her presence gave Illinois a new energy in sets two and three.
“It changes the look of a game when you do change setters because everybody thinks differently and you kinda have it scouted one way,” MSU head coach Cathy George said. I thought that McKenna Kelsay, who’s Kristen’s sister, came in, and it was a different look for them. They got riled up, she did a nice job, and we had to kinda regroup and get our game plan together. I thought the team responded well.”
Kristen had a smile on her face when McKenna entered the match. Until Illinois tied MSU, 6-6, in the early going of the second set.
“I knew it was going to be a cool night, then she got on the floor, and I was smiling,” Kristen said. “Then they started beating us, and I was pissed.”
After the game, Kristen and McKenna embraced each other. Two Big Ten athletes, one family. It was a seminal moment.
“It’s something we’ve been talking about for so long, and we’ve been so excited for,” McKenna said. “Today, even just when I woke up, it was ‘Tonight’s the night, tonight’s the night I get to play Kristen!’ It was an exciting day overall.”
Bruce wore a tailor-made shirt to the game. One half of the shirt was green, to support Kristen. The other half was blue, to support McKenna.
“I’ve had the Michigan State shirt obviously for three years, but when McKenna went to Illinois, I thought I’d like to cheer for both of them,” Bruce said. “I don’t want to just cheer for one or the other. This is my way of letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m for both of you. I want to see both of you do well.’”
He supported his daughters when they were in high school. Now they’re competing in a loaded Big Ten conference.
Kristen, who is a senior, will graduate after this academic year. This is the only year Bruce will see his daughters play each other.
“To watch them compete against each other, and this is the only year it can happen, real special experience,” Bruce said. “Really, really proud of them.”