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Princeton junior setter Michelle Kelly led the area with 8.4 assists and helped to guide the Tigresses to a 25-12 mark this season. She is the 2012 NewsTribune Volleyball Player of the Year. NewsTribune photo/Anthony Soufflé
PRINCETON — Two years ago as a freshman on the Princeton volleyball team, Michelle Kelly felt a little out of place.
“I was really scared,” she admitted. “I had a few games where I was comfortable, but most of the time I wasn’t. I was with the older girls and I am kind of shy.”
She had to let her game do the talking instead.
That year Kelly spent her entire freshman volleyball season as a defensive specialist and as the backup setter for the Tigresses before she played with her classmates on the sophomore team for most of last season.
But, after being a postseason call-up last year, a more confident, calm and battle-tested Kelly stepped into the starring setter roll this season for Princeton.
She did nothing but shine.
“I am a lot more confident,” the junior said. “I think I have more personality and took more charge this year. When I was a freshman, I didn’t really talk at all. This year, I really tried to encourage people.”
She came of age.
“The biggest thing with her is confidence, and I’ve seen that confidence increase the last few years, including this year with her coming in and winning over her team,” PHS coach Andy Puck said. “She proved to not only her teammates but — more than anything — to herself that she is able to run an offense and take a quality team like Princeton to the next level.”
Her stats back it up.
This season Kelly led the area with 8.4 assists per set as she helped to guide Princeton to a 25-12 record while earning All-NCIC honors.
For her play this season, Kelly is the 2012 NewsTribune Volleyball Player of the Year.
“If you look at her stats this year,” Puck said, “she was our best defender off the net. She was our best serve-receiver. … She also had a nose for the ball and knew where to be. She was constantly, constantly, constantly trying to make her team better. And if you have a kid like that on the court, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
It’s the first time a Princeton player has won the award and the first time a setter has claim the honor since Hall’s Vanessa Funfsinn shared the award in 2003.
Not a bad honor for a player who started the season in a two-setter system.
Playing in what Puck dubbed a “5-2” offense where the Princeton setters started the season subbing for one another instead of the traditional hitters, Kelly needed little time to claim the position despite her 5-foot-4 stature.
“First of all, she proved she could get it done in the front row,” Puck said of switching to the 5-1 offense. “But with her height, we had to mix some things up because quality coaches are going to see a setter who is 5-foot-4 and they are going to try to set that outside as much as possible.
“But while we had to give up a few things, it also increased a lot of things. Just having her on the court and in every rotation definitely soothed our offense and it soothed our defense. Her communication and her will to get to every ball definitely were a lot more positive than the negatives.”
Getting to that point, however, was a bit of a pain for Kelly — literally.
During warm-ups in Princeton’s season opener against Dixon, she had a ball deflect off a finger, which popped and stuck out sideways.
After trying to initially play through the pain, Puck suggested she talk to her mother, who took her to the hospital where it was discovered she had broken her finger.
“I came back and watched, which was hard because I wanted to play,” Kelly said.
While the doctor said she would do no further harm playing volleyball, it was suggested she take some time off from the sport.
However, she ignored orders as she taped her broken finger to one next to it and played two days later.
She spent nearly a month playing in pain.
“The doctor said I should have taken off more time, but he said if I could take the pain I could play,” Kelly said. “That’s what I did because I wanted to play.”
It was just another step in her maturation process over the last three years that’s blended with the skill Puck saw all along.
“There’s that wit about her that you either have or you don’t,” he said. “There are things you can tell a kid — to hit the floor, to dive, to sprawl — and some kids will get it only because their coach is telling them to do it. But she is the type of kid that she wants to do it, and you just can’t instill those things into players.”
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.
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