Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography
It’s hard to stand out in a city of more than 200,000 people. McKenzie Burke already made her mark in a town of 2,000 during high school, with her acrobatic leaps and spikes in the volleyball gym. Today, the redshirt freshman is trying to go from forgettable walk-on to memorable star. The Bison may have the right team next year to make this dream a reality.
In the small town of Osceola, Wis., high school sports reign supreme. Tucked along the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Osceola is an hour drive from Minneapolis.
Sports figures who are engrained in the memories of most of the town locals aren’t professionals. They’re athletes with decorated careers at Osceola High School, home of the Chieftains.
Women’s volleyball player McKenzie Burke is somewhat of a hometown hero. She was your prototypical three-sport star at Osceola. Burke was a three-year starter on the varsity volleyball and basketball teams and a four-year starter on the softball team. She was a two-year captain for the Chieftains volleyball team and was a first-team all- conference player in her junior and senior seasons.
At 5-foot-11-inches, Burke’s hard to forget in a town of 2,000.
Today, the redshirt freshman has yet to make a name for herself in Fargo. After receiving offers from several Division II schools in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, Burke knew she had the skills that would translate well to the Division I game. She was in for a surprise, though, when she joined Kari Thompson’s team as a walk-on.
“Coach T (Thompson) was pretty good friends with my club team coach,” Burke said. “We communicated really well and she asked me to come for a visit, I did, loved it, and it was really easy and simple.”
[image link=”true” src=”4224″ alt=”NDSU Bison women’s volleyball player McKenzie Burke “]
[text_output]Burke arrived before the 2014 season along with four other freshmen. It was anything but simple. Coach Thompson recruited Burke as a middle blocker but decided to move her to the outside.
“It’s like an infielder going to the outfield,” said Burke.
Burke spent countless hours in the gym last season adjusting to her new position, even though she knew she wouldn’t get the opportunity to show her progress during a match. Being a walk-on, she had her doubts if she’d ever be able to get on the court and contribute to the team.
“In high school, I played all three years starting varsity, I played all the time, and I was starting on my club team,” Burke said. “Coming in here and not getting a chance to be on the court my first year, it definitely sucked.”
What helped Burke get through her redshirt season were her teammates. The scholarship athletes could’ve easily ignored her and treated her as another practice player. On the contrary, Burke said she was received by her teammate just like any other player on scholarship.
Burke has played in 24 sets through 10 matches this season and has 11 kills. It was no bed of roses for the walk-on entering her first year of eligibility.
“In the preseason, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. This is absolutely out of my range. What am I doing here?’” Burke said. “But, after I got over that bump, I was like, this is why I’m here.”
Burke attributes her confidence to why she has made the successful leap to big-time college volleyball from the small-town high school game. Her advice for other walk-ons is something she’s had to remind herself of since getting to NDSU.
“Don’t look at yourself as being an underdog compared to every other freshman that’s coming in with you that is on scholarship,” Burke said. She related her advice to what she went through. “There’s a reason why she (Thompson) recruited me. There’s something that she saw and I have to believe that every time that I go out there, whether that’s in practice or I get a chance to get into the game.”
Burke is still considered a walk-on and has yet to earn any of the 12 scholarships the volleyball team is given every year.
However, she is receiving financial help through academic scholarships. She’s studying exercise science and has just applied for the professional program. She said she’s hoping for a future in the medical field, but doesn’t have a preference yet.
As for being remembered as a standout athlete at NDSU, Burke said that’s eventually the goal.
“I want to be approached by a person that watched me play and say, ‘Hey, you were a part of that 2016, 2017 team that really made a difference and made an impact on this community,’” Burke said. “I want to make a difference. With the little campers that we have, be a person to look up to, show them that they can do this just as much as I can.”
The NDSU volleyball program will only lose one senior from the 2015 team, which means the future is bright for next year. The challenge will be hanging in the balance next fall, and who knows, 2016 might be Burke’s and the volleyball team’s best chance to make their mark in the history books.[/text_output]