Tommie freshman plays for D-III national champs
Champlin Park High School graduate Kayla Walton and her University of St. Thomas volleyball team made history when they defeated Calvin (Mich.) College, 13-25, 17-25, 25-18, 25-16, 15-9, Saturday, Nov. 24 in Holland, Mich., to win the NCAA Division III volleyball championship.
Walton is a 5-foot, 2-inch freshman setter for the Tommies, who won their last 35 matches in a row to win the school’s first national title and also became the first team from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to win the national championship in volleyball.
They finished the year 40-1.
A starting libero for the Rebels during her senior season, Walton earned all-conference honorable mention and received the All-State Academic Award.
After graduating from Champlin Park, Walton tried out for the St. Thomas’ volleyball program under the leadership of coach Thanh Pham.
“Playing volleyball wasn’t on my mind at first,” Walton said. “But I realized I could not stop playing volleyball. I liked coach Pham’s coaching style and it fits me. I talked to him during the summer and he invited me to tryout.”
Walton made the cut as a setter and spent the entire season with the team, all the way through the run to the national championship.
“It was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Walton said. “It’s amazing how much I’ve learned in one season. Just to be a part of these girls since day one is something I will always remember.”
Even though Walton was a reserve who didn’t see lots of playing time, Coach Pham stressed that players like Walton played key roles in the team’s success.
“Players like Kayla played pivotal roles in our championship run,” Pham said. “Like the rest of our team, they think team first and understand that they need to work hard everyday to make us the best we can be. They are reserve players that practice hard everyday as if they were starting. They also pushed the starters everyday in practice, which helps us have intense practices. Like many of our starters, they too had to start as a reserve and I am confident when their number is called, they will be ready. We are fortunate to have a very deep team and with players like Mallory, Kayla, and Elizabeth we will be competitive for years to come.”
The strong team bond and a deep roster were reasons the Tommies managed to hang together in tight matches.
Nicknamed the Comeback Kids, the Tommies had several come-from-behind wins in the MIAC tournament, including the semifinal match against Carleton when they were down 4-10 in the fifth and deciding game and rallied to win.
The come-from-behind win in the national championship match seemed like a fitting end to their magical season.
“To be down two sets, in that environment, and to be able to pull out the win speaks volumes about our girls and how much they wanted it,” said Pham. “This team won 40 of 41 matches this year and won the national championship but it’s not the most talented team I’ve had. I had teams with more talent but this team is stubborn and it refuses to lose. I watched some of the matches when we were down, and I said, ‘How did we win this?’ This team is gritty.”
Added Walton, “It’s a lot of fun and I am proud of the program.”