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FEATURE: A Career As Improbable As It Was Incredible

FEATURE: A Career As Improbable As It Was Incredible

VISUAL STORY (Click the photo below)

WRITTEN STORY

CLEMSON, S.C. – In 2015, fans packed Jervey Gym all season long to watch Clemson fight through the growing pains of its first season rebuilding the volleyball program. Along with the new coaching staff came a graduate-student libero that won over thousands of fans with her speed and athleticism from the first day she stepped onto the court.

What many fans don’t know is that they just witnessed a glimpse of a student-athlete’s career that was as improbable as it was incredible. But even after seven years of witnessing her elite level of play day in and day out, there’s only one way head coach Hugh Hernesman can describe his libero this season.

“That was just Keelie being Keelie.”

In the spring of 2010, Hugh and Stephanie Hernesman began recruiting for their first two seasons at Northwestern State University. At that time they came across a player they knew would not only be a cornerstone within their program, but would play a major part in the rebuild ahead of them.

The Hernesman’s struck gold with the discovery of Stacey DiFrancesco. The six-rotation outside hitter from The Woodlands, Texas went on to become the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year and graduated as a three-time All-Southland Conference selection as well as NSU’s all-time career kills leader with 1,293 throughout her four-year career.

However, in their recruitment of DiFrancesco they couldn’t help but notice the girl setting her. That girl was 17-year-old all-state setter, Keelie Arneson.

“I remember her court presence,” Stephanie said. “She was a fun kid to watch. She was fast, athletic, always smiling, working hard and she seemed like a really good kid and a good teammate.”

There was just one issue; Hugh already had a setter signed in that recruiting class. However, with one scholarship to spare the Hernesman’s offered Arneson a scholarship under the condition that she would join the Demons as a defensive specialist that maybe one day would become their libero.

“Every coach has someone that they watch in recruiting and feel like they may not have a need at that position but they’d really like to have that player on their team,” Hugh said. “That’s what Keelie was for us.”

Hugh and Stephanie admitted that asking Arneson to switch from setter to libero was going to be a big transition, particularly in serve receive, but her speed and athleticism would give her the tools necessary to survive early on in her college years. Although with DiFrancesco by her side, the transition was never a concern for Arneson.

Arneson had played with DiFrancesco since she was 13 years old and as far back as they can remember they’ve always shared an indescribable connection on the court.

Bound together by their competitiveness, it became difficult for them to imagine not playing together, making scholarship opportunities at Northwestern State an easy sell.

It was their competitiveness that would dictate the culture and ultimately fuel the NSU Demon program for the next four years. Even as freshmen, DiFrancesco was the voice and Arneson was the example.

“She’s crazy competitive,” Arneson smiled. “She’s the reason we say one word in the huddle.”

“We would just get in the huddle and she would say a bunch of stuff and it made everyone nervous because nobody was used to her like I was. So Coach Steph actually said one day that we were only going to say one word because my other teammates couldn’t handle her intensity… So that’s where that came from,” Arneson laughed.

All joking aside, Arneson credited DiFrancesco as being the glue of the team and playing a huge part in building the team-focused, winning culture that Hugh and Stephanie preached. However if you asked DiFrancesco, she’d say Arneson played a bigger role in the team culture than she realizes.

“Everyone wanted to be like Keelie,” DiFrancesco said. “I always pushed myself to be as fast and athletic as her. She just works so hard but she never took things too seriously. She always had a calm presence about her on the court that helped keep us all focused.”

After the first two seasons Arneson had, it’s easy to understand why her teammates looked to her as the one who set the bar day-in and day-out. As a freshman, she started as NSU’s libero and set the program single-season digs record with 539 and a 4.69 digs per set average.

“Her first fall was pretty impressive considering she had no idea what she was doing,” Hugh laughed. “She broke the school record without having a clue of what she was doing. She was in a new position, playing left-back and had always played right-back up until that season.”

The next year she broke her own record with 618 digs and a 5.07 digs per set average. Although, it was that spring of her sophomore year when things changed for Arneson and set her on a path for a historic collegiate career.

“She took everything to a professional level,” Stephanie said. “She wanted to be great in everything that she did whether it was in the weight room, her social choices, on the court or in the classroom.”

“She just decided she was tired of being an average kid. She wanted to beat everybody in everything whether it was sprints, pepper or serve-receive. She always had the drive, she just took it to the next level.”

Arneson’s junior year, the libero from Tomball, Texas claimed her throne in the Southland Conference and earned a reputation as one of the best liberos in the country.

She began the year by breaking the program’s career digs record in mid September and went on to finish fourth in the nation with a 5.70 digs per set average and 712 digs, once again breaking her own school record for digs in a single-season.

The overall performance led to her earning Southland Conference Libero of the Year honors and she was also the Southland Conference’s Student-Athlete of the Year.

“We knew we had something special when we got going right away and she was the best player on the floor regardless of who we were playing,” Hugh said.

That season, NSU fell 15-12 in the fifth set to Central Arkansas in the Southland Conference Championship in which Arneson had recorded one of her seven matches with 30 digs or more that season. The loss combined with her breakthrough season and her obsession to become the best libero in the country set her up for an even bigger senior year.

“I don’t know if Keelie is ever satisfied. She’s always looking for that next level,” Hugh said. “Once she got to a pretty good level, she just wanted more.”

Arneson didn’t just come back better in her senior season; she was a completely different athlete. In 2014, she led the country with an astounding 6.82 digs per set average and had 266 digs through the first 10 matches of the season. In comparison, the total was 118 more digs than she had in the first 10 matches the year prior.

With non-conference play highlighted by a 3-0 win over No. 15 Mizzou, it was Northwestern State’s year. It was also going to be Arneson’s year until September 26th when she convinced the coaches to practice instead of resting a nagging knee injury because she was unhappy with her 39-dig effort against McNeese.

Arneson approached a ball in warm-ups, felt her Achilles snap and retract up her leg.

“It was the most difficult day of my coaching career,” Hugh said. “To see someone within your program that feels like a daughter to you hurting and potentially done with their career was really hard. It was a tough day.”

“We thought we were done. It was supposed to be our year, it was supposed to be her year and then she goes down and your whole world falls apart,” said Stephanie. “It was one of the worst days of my career.”

At the time of the injury, Hugh’s first reaction was to go to compliance and see if she was eligible for a medical redshirt. Turned out, had Arneson torn her Achilles that next day in NSU’s match against Nichols, her career would have been over. She tore her Achilles one day shy of not being eligible for a medical redshirt.

However, as expected, Arneson took the timing of the injury as fate and was determined to come back even stronger. Once she was able to begin rehab, she sought out her strength coach, Evan Coachman.

“She said to me on day one, ‘Tell me what I’ve got to do to get better,’ and from that point on she didn’t miss a beat,” said Coachman. “It was like anything else… She wanted to win but she hated to lose and she wasn’t going to lose to her injury. She cannot stand being second in anything… She has to be the best.”

The road to recovery wasn’t easy for Arneson as she had to relearn how to walk, squat, lunge and even use stairs. She was forced to fight her way through workouts far more basic than what incoming freshmen are challenged with, but after a winter of resistance training, Arneson found herself back on the court performing light drills in February.

Soon after, Arneson was asked into Hugh’s office so he could give her the news that he and Stephanie were leaving for Clemson and would not be at NSU for her fifth year.

In their absence Arneson found herself in a coaching role, attempting to hold the team together and keep them on track through the spring. But, it wasn’t the same. Similar to the way she couldn’t imagine herself playing without DiFrancesco, she couldn’t imagine playing for any other coaching staff than the Hernesmans. So, three or four weeks after the coaches had arrived at Clemson, Hugh received an email from Arneson.

“It was a very clearly thought out, page-long email basically asking to come play for us without knowing anything about our situation. All she saw was that we had a graduating libero and that the number 10 was open. That for her was destiny. I could tell from that email, it wouldn’t have mattered if NSU hired Russ Rose,” Hugh laughed. “She wanted to come to Clemson and play for Hugh and Steph Hernesman.”

Arneson’s first taste of real live action came in the team’s preseason scrimmage. After wowing a packed Jervey Gym all night long, she walked off the court glowing because she knew she was back.

“She learned she belonged on the court with her ACC teammates and was excited to play again,” Hugh said. It was her first chance to play competitively and she had gained the confidence she needed to reassure her that she was back.”

It wasn’t long after that the graduate libero realized she wasn’t far off from breaking into the NCAA’s list of all-time career dig leaders.

“None of us knew how close she was to breaking into the top 25 in digs,” Hugh said. “She isn’t award or milestone driven at all. She just wants to be great and she just wants to compete. For Keelie, it’s always been about seeing what she could do and pushing for more.”

Her performance never wavered as she approached the career milestone and on October 2, number 10’s 10th dig of the night against #17 Florida State gave her 2,399 in her career, establishing her among the NCAA’s list of all-time career dig leaders. She went on to finish the match with 15 digs, placing her 24th all-time with 2,404 career digs.

The milestone came in poetic fashion as it occurred exactly one year to the day after she was on the operating table to repair her torn Achilles tendon.

From that point on it seemed as though she jumped a former student-athlete on the list of all-time career dig leaders in every match she played. Every match, she impressed another team and every match she gained confidence, ultimately allowing her to reach the elite level of play she knew she was capable of.

In the month of November, the ACC’s best libero was perhaps the best libero in the country. Arneson strung together a streak of 32 sets in which she recorded 192 digs for a 6.00 digs per set average. She finished with 20 digs or more in six of the nine matches.

Her streak was highlighted by a 31-dig effort in Clemson’s 3-1 win at Georgia Tech and her career came to a fitting end with 20 digs in just three sets against No. 20 Florida State. The performance solidified her in NCAA volleyball history, placing her fifth all-time with 2,707 career digs and tying her for 25th all-time with a 5.30 career digs per set average.

“I was able to walk off the court happy with the way my career ended,” Arneson said. “If I didn’t have a good match against Florida State, it would’ve haunted me the rest of my life because there’s no guarantee of playing another match anywhere else.”

Even while getting acclimated to the ACC, Arneson was still able to lead the conference in digs and digs per set all but one week in her final collegiate season. Her 576 digs in 2015 was the most in the conference and the 35th most in the NCAA. It’s also the fifth highest dig total ever recorded in a single season by a Clemson Tiger. Her 5.24 digs per set average was the second best single-season percentage recorded by a Tiger in program history and ranked her atop the ACC as well as 18th in the nation.

“I always knew I could compete at this level,” Arenson said. “The fact that I got to prove myself and to finish leading the conference gave me a new level of confidence to pursue a career in volleyball. It just made me want to work that much harder again to play for the national team or overseas.”

“Her play speaks for itself,” Hugh said. “You lead the ACC in digs and digs per set in your first season in the conference… That shows you what kind of player you’ve got right there. You don’t need an all-conference award to tell you that you’re one of the best at that point.”

Now with the final chapter of her collegiate career written and a bright volleyball future ahead of her, the one thing Arneson may miss the most will be playing for the two coaches who have practically raised her over the past five years.

“Hugh and Steph have been through this whole journey with me. I’ve known them for seven years,” Arneson said. “They have made a huge impact in my life and everything I do, literally, is for them. It’s always satisfying for me when I do well, but every time I step out onto the court I just want to make them proud.”

“Every time I hear Steph yell, ‘That’s my girl!’ I just want to do something else that’s going to make her say that because it gives me the best feeling. The enjoyment she got from watching me made me feel so good because I’ve never had a coach brag about me that much. She always tells me that she’s living through me. I just love it.”

“We just make such a good team, all three of us. They’re the best.”

The end of Arneson’s time as a student-athlete is a bittersweet pill for the Hernesman’s to swallow as well. Hugh and Stephanie will deeply miss the girl they’ve known longer than their six-year old daughter, but are tremendously proud of the volleyball player and person Keelie Arneson has become.

“When we recruited her, we didn’t think she was going to become one of the greatest liberos to ever play the sport,” Hugh said. “But over the course of her four years, Steph and I both take a lot of satisfaction in seeing who she is today compared to the 17 year old kid we got to meet.”

“When we see people who may need to grow in certain areas, Keelie is the model. Here’s a player who had never played the position, never serve-received a volleyball before college and for her to go from this all-state setter to one of the best liberos to ever play the game… That’s a level of focus, determination and drive that really makes a difference.”

“I’m proud of her, I’m proud to have been able to sit back and watch it all happen. We put some things in place for her and she ran with it. To know what we’ve been able to do to help her has allowed her to become this great player gives us great satisfaction.”

“But at the end of the day she’s just a great person who happens to be a great volleyball player too.”

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