Gratitude. Grit. Grace. This is how new Clemson Volleyball Head Coach Jackie Simpson Kirr plans to attack each and every day – each and every moment – with her team. Own Today is the now the program’s mantra, which encompasses three components: gratitude, grit and grace.
Kirr assumed the role of head coach on May 6, 2021 after Clemson and former head coach Michaela Franklin mutually agreed to part ways after a four-year stint. Kirr previously served as the program’s Associate Head Coach, recruiting coordinator and offensive coordinator.
After one of the oddest seasons perhaps in the history of college sports due to COVID-19, one in which saw the 2020 volleyball season bleed into the 2021 calendar year, Kirr had the tall task of formulating – in a shortened offseason – her coaching staff and roster as well as setting forth the core values that she hopes will shape a prosperous culture for years to come. But if there’s anyone that is up to the task, it is Kirr, who not only has four years’ worth of coaching experience at Clemson, but she also knows what it takes to win at the highest level. As a setter for the University of Wisconsin from 2004-07, Kirr guided the Badgers to two Elite Eight appearances, was tabbed a Second Team All-American and earned All-Big Ten Academic honors during her collegiate career.
“Everything is starting to open up, and so now we are in this time crunch of managing two really important things for our program, which are recruiting and also being here in the office getting everything ready for our upcoming season,” said Kirr. “Part of the challenge is focusing on our current roster in that capacity because normally our time with them would be a little bit more spaced out, but because of COVID-19, it’s now really condensed. But we’ve been doing this for approximately 15 months now, and so we’ve been able to adapt as best we can. We’re just going to focus on what we can control.”
Even in the midst of the pandemic, the 2020-21 Tigers’ roster, which featured eight freshmen and sophomores, demonstrated just how high their ceiling can be. Clemson returns 12 players from its 2021 spring roster, including mid-year enrollees Kyla Solis (Castroville, Texas) and Devan Taylor (Spring, Texas). Neither Solis nor Taylor were eligible to compete this past spring as mid-year enrollees, but this Fall both are slated to be a full go. Solis will add depth in the middle, while Taylor will officially join the Tigers’ backrow. Taylor was tabbed a 2020 AVCA Second Team All-American among the nation’s top prospects. Joining Solis and Taylor are true freshmen Jacyn Bamis (Spokane, Wash.) and Aźyah Dailey (Port Charlotte, Fla.). Bamis is 6-1 middle blocker, while Dailey is a versatile outside hitter with the six-rotation potential.
Perhaps one of the most anticipated returning Tigers is defensive specialist/libero Anna Renwick. Renwick’s freshman campaign was cut short due to a season-ending surgery. Her athleticism and knowledge – even as a true freshman – was on full display in the limited time in which she did see the court. Caitlyn Meeks, who started in 15 matches at libero last season after transferring from Georgia Southern in January, and newly-named captain Crystal Childs round out the Tigers’ backrow. Despite joining the team in the middle of the season, Meeks led the team in digs (3.29/set). Childs, a versatile athlete that can play both backrow and outside, is one of just two players to bring three years of experience as a member of the Tigers roster.
Kirr and the Tigers will look to setter Mckenna Slavik, who enters her third season at Clemson, to quarterback the Tigers’ offense. Slavik started in all 22 matches at setter during the 2020 season and finished third in assists (684) and assists per set (9.63). Slavik also demonstrated how high her ceiling is as a setter after dishing out a career-best 57 assists against Charlotte, which is currently tied for ninth in program history for the most assists in a single match. Backing up Slavik will be Jenna Moore, a product of Mauldin High School in Greenville, South Carolina.
One luxury Kirr and her staff will possess this year are options, especially with their pin hitters. In addition to Dailey and Childs, Kirr will have the combination Kaylee Martin, a transfer from Illinois State University and returners Cate Long and Camryn Hannah. Martin was standout for the Redbirds and led them to their second straight Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship. There, she garnered AVCA All-North Region honors and earned All-MVC First Team accolades in 2020 after leading the team in kills (4.04/set). Long was a six-rotation outside hitter for the Tigers in 2020 and one of the best behind the service line in the ACC. Long was also named the ACC’s Freshman of the Week (Oct. 13) last season, marking one of five conference weekly honors won for Clemson.
Hannah was one of the top freshman hitters in the country last season, and was named to the Preseason All-ACC team in 2021. With just 20 matches and 77 sets under her belt, Hannah has already inked her name throughout the ACC and Clemson record books. In addition to being named an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention selection, and an All-ACC Second Team and ACC All-Freshman Team recipient, Hannah made her name known to the collegiate volleyball realm after posting an ACC single-match record (under the rally-scoring format) 37 kills at Syracuse on March 7. For her standout performance, she was named the AVCA’s Player of the Week and ACC’s Player and Freshman of the Week. Hannah went on to garner ACC Freshman of the Week two more times, collecting the most ACC weekly honors than any other ACC player last season.
Just like the outside hitter position, Clemson is stout in the middle as well. Outside of Bamis, Clemson returns three middles in Colleen Finney, Ani Clark and Ava Pritchard, all of whom have previously garnered significant playing time for the Tigers. Finney accrued quality experience as a true freshman last season, having appeared in 13 matches, including seven starts. Finney concluded her freshman campaign on a high note after registering a season-best seven blocks in the Tigers’ season finale, a 3-1 victory over Virginia Tech. She also possesses the ability to play the right side if Kirr and staff so desire. Clark has been one of the most reliable defensive pieces for the Tigers in the last two years.Clark has combined to appear in 39 matches over the course of the last two seasons. Last season, she was third on the team in blocks (0.69/set). In her career debut – also the Tigers’ 2019 season opener – against Georgia, she inked her name in the Clemson record book when she achieved a hitting percentage of .800, good for No. 9 all-time in a single match in program history. In addition to Childs, Pritchard also offers three seasons of Clemson Volleyball experience and was named a co-captain this offseason alongside Childs and Slavik. In her three seasons as a Tiger, Pritchard has been known to be a potent threat, especially offensively. Last season, Pritchard posted double-digit kills in three matches as a middle, including a season-best 14 kills against Western Carolina, one shy of tying her career high.
Following one of, if not, the most unorthodox regular-season schedules in program history, the Tigers’ schedule will return to a sense of normalcy in 2021. This year’s schedule features a full slate, including two home tournaments, the Clemson Invitational and the Big Orange Bash. The Tigers will also play a total of 18 league matches, nine of which will be held in Jervey Gym.
“I think this team is a really hungry group and they really want to process the information we’re giving them. I think a lot of times young people get coined as wanting instant gratification, but this group has this determination to learn new things. They want more knowledge. They know that they don’t have all the answers yet for what they’re doing on or even sometimes off the court, and as coach that’s a very encouraging and an exciting place to be.”