Fallston volleyball coach Nicole Hoover was working with returning players on the first day of practice two years ago when volunteer coach Ali Kelly strongly recommended looking at a freshman in the team's other workout.
Hoover usually knew what new players were coming to Fallston, but she hadn't seen Rachel Kuegler before. Kuegler already could jump serve with efficiency, something that's rare in high school volleyball, and was clearly a presence at the net.
"It's very unusual to have anybody on your team jump serve," Hoover said. "I had a few kids who could, but to have a 13-year-old who could do this is rare. I was impressed."
Hoover didn't know Kuegler because she had just transferred from the Open Bible Christian Academy in Baltimore County. Kuegler has since developed into one of Harford County's top players. A first-team All-County pick last year as a sophomore, Kuegler is a powerful outside hitter who has grown into a key member of the Fallston team.
Volleyball is a big part of Kuegler's life. She began playing at 8, when her mother coached an Open Bible team and Kuegler fell in love with the sport after going to a number of the team's practices. Kuegler then made the middle school team when in the fourth grade, and her playing career took off from there.
She has played volleyball year-round since the fifth grade, now competing with Fallston during the fall and the Time Out club from December through May, often going to tournaments in different parts of the country against high-level competition. Kuegler also participates in summer camps along with a variety of informal workouts with her Fallston teammates.
Kuegler has grown into a force on the court. Not only is Kuegler's hitting powerful at the net, but Hoover likes how the junior can attack strongly from the back row. The jump serve that initially caught the coach's attention also keeps improving, making Kuegler and the Cougars that much tougher to defend.
"I'm happy with where [I'm at]," Kuegler said. "But I just want to keep improving in every aspect of my game."
Kuegler, who was named a team captain this season, is a tireless worker in practice and often sets the tone for her teammates.
"She comes in and gives 110 percent every day," Hoover said. "She asks me questions on and off the court and is continually trying to improve. It's not like she thinks she's the best and [won't work]."
Kuegler's coaches and teammates also have been impressed with her vocal leadership on the court. She has earned the nickname of "Pep" for her ability to push and inspire teammates.
"I just want to encourage everyone, even if we're playing badly," Kuegler said. "It's all about coming together. I want to be a positive voice on the court at all times ... and an energy source."
Teammates also love her sense of humor and ability to make players and coaches laugh at just the right times.
"If someone makes a bad pass, she'll shake their hand and say, 'Don't worry, you'll get the next one,' " said junior setter Shannon Rumple, a teammate of Kuegler's at Fallston and Time Out. "It helps a lot. If they think about their mistakes, they'll do worse. She helps them do better."
The Cougars also see how relentlessly Kuegler drives herself. Kuegler said she's her own worst critic, and that's something her teammates respect.
"She's played an awesome game and she always finds something else she can improve upon, even though she played the greatest game," said Kaitlin Del Vicchio, who also plays with Kueg-ler in school and on the club team. "It's good to be around someone like that. It really brings your spirit up."
This past summer, Kuegler, who wants to play volleyball in college, worked on increasing her jumping ability and gaining strength. Kuegler's vertical jump is at 8 feet 11, and she wants to push it over 9 feet, something that's probably necessary to be a front-line player in college.
Kuegler, who has helped Fallston get off to a 2-1 start, has been asking her coach to diagram more things for her this season.
She also stays after practice to work on hitting and serving and never hesitates to volunteer to be the first person in difficult drills.
"She's not my best athlete, but the kid is so smart and understands volleyball so well," Hoover said. "She's the most complete player that I have coached in any of the sports."