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Western Tech graduate hits with authority for UMBC volleyball

Western Tech graduate hits with authority for UMBC volleyball
Krystal Mlemchukwu, who led UMBC in kills this season as a red-shirt junior, is a graduate of Western Tech. She earned a scholarship at UMBC after walking on her freshman year. (Photoo courtesy of UMBC Athletics/Zach Seidel)

Krystal Mlemchukwu's season may have ended prematurely, but that didn't stop the University of Maryland, Baltimore County redshirt junior from leading the team in kills and making a strong impression on coach Ian Blanchard in her willingness to switch positions.

The 2011 graduate of Western Tech, who earned a scholarship in her sophomore season after walking on as a freshman, led the Retrievers with 234 kills while moving from middle hitter to outside.

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But, her season ended after she broke her pinkie finger in a four-set loss to Hartford on Nov. 2.

A pin was inserted surgically and she will keep it in for four to six weeks.

It was the first injury she has suffered and even though she was unable to play the final two matches, she wasn't devastated.

UMBC needed to win both matches to have a chance to reach the America East playoffs for the second straight year, but they lost them.

A day before the first of those two matches she talked about not playing.

"I still have confidence in whoever they put in," she said. "I don't really have any frustrations with not being able to play."

To which her coach chimed "I do."

That's because Blanchard knows what she is capable of at times.

"Krystal probably hits the ball as hard if not harder than anybody I've seen in the United States," Blanchard said. "She has an electric arm swing. She doesn't always know where the ball is going to go and neither do the rest of us and we need to be able to help her direct that power and add some finesse to it as well."

Mlemchukwu only playing one year of club volleyball and she spent most of the time on the bench.

She was more of a track standout at Western Tech where she ran the 400, 800 and did the high jump, long jump and triple jump.

But she started to blossom as a senior and Blanchard took a chance and she became one of five walk-ons to earn a scholarship in his 10 seasons as head coach.

"The raw power has always been there," Blanchard said.

Her maximum jumping height increased four inches, from 10-feet, 1-inch to 10-5, between her sophomore to junior year.

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"Two weeks ago she was walking through the gym and she jumped up and grabbed the [basketball] rim with both arms," Blanchard.

But, she won't be dunking any basketballs for the hoop squad this year even though she played the sport in high school.

Blanchard hopes the finger heals in time to send her to Colorado to try out for one of the high performance national teams.

"That would definitely be an honor," said the Catonsville native. "I haven't really planned that out or set that as a goal, but to be able to go would be really amazing. It's not something I ever really thought about because I never saw my self going that far."

Matches like the one she had when she amassed a career-high 31 kills in a five-set victory at Albany on Oct. 17 make her attractive for the national team.

"She was just the most dominant force in the gym and nobody could do anything to stop her," Blanchard said. "And then, she has moments where she will have, five kills and eight or nine errors. She is still learning how to become a better volleyball player."

Moving from middle hitter and blocker to outside was an adjustment.

"I prefer middle just because it's what I'm used to," she admitted. "With more practice, I will grow to love the outside more, but it's just I was kind of thrown into it this year and I did work hard to get used to it, but it was also a very frustrating period, just going from a quick tempo to a slower tempo and rushing into everything."

Her passing and hitting accuracy has improved since her freshman year when she was named Most Improved Player on the team even though she was red-shirted.

"When I first came in I would just hit the ball anywhere," she said. "I wouldn't think prior to it. I would just go up and try and use my strength to the best of my ability. But now through the years, it doesn't always take a strong kill to get a kill. You can tip, you can roll. You can do so many different things."

But, she is realistic and knows she has room for improvement before next season.

"It's not always going to work," she said. "You can be in a zone one game and all of the sudden it's out the window the next game. During that [Albany] match the adrenaline just rushed though me and I guess I just wanted to keep doing what I was doing and it just happened to be working."

Blanchard knows her development as an outside hitter needs some tinkering.

"If this experiment with her on the outside is going to stick, her defense is going to have to improve," he said. "She was definitely one of the best middle blockers in the conference before we moved her."

She already proved she can handle challenges freshman year.

"I worked really hard that year," said the mathematics major. "I just remember coming in ready to work. That's the confidence that I had. I knew that if I kept that mentality and I was ready to grow and change things that needed to change that I would definitely have a shot at the team."

Having her arm naturally low during her hitting approach was something her coach liked.

"She also has really good mechanics for her arm swing," Blanchard said.

But, she admits her arms are the strongest.

"To be honest I probably have the weakest arms," she said. "It all comes from core strength like you abs and things like that."

"This girl hits the ball about as hard as any volleyball player I have seen," said Blanchard, noting she's been clocked at 50 miles per hour on a jump serve.

Getting more consistency in the kill department is the coach's ultimate goal.

"She had some moments where she was really one of the best players on the floor, if not the best player on the floor," Blanchard said. "And then we have other moments where we have a few to many errors here to go along with some of these kills."

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