KOKOMO, Ind. — Keeana Walton began her college volleyball career as an underdog player, on an underdog team.
Coach Heather Hayes sold Keeana on her vision for the fledgling team, which was entering its third season. However, she warned her that she might not see much playing time as a freshman.
“I wanted to be part of what the coach believed in,” Keeana said. “The goal was to leave a legacy; basically build something I could be part of forever. She told me she could see my potential, and I started playing more my second year.”
The former “underdog” graduates this May with numerous personal volleyball accolades from a team that is two-time defending River States Conference champion, and national championship contenders.
Keeana, who only had played two seasons of volleyball at Maconaquah High School before coming to IU Kokomo, grew with the program. The team achieved its first winning season and first conference tournament her freshman year, set a record for consecutive wins in a season her sophomore year, and won the conference championship her junior and senior years.
“Nobody believed we could do this at the beginning, but we believed in it,” she said, adding that she especially enjoyed competing in the NAIA national tournament her final two years.
“It was an amazing experience, playing at the national level,” she said.
Keeana, 22, and fellow seniors Kaleigh Ensley and Kayley Harness, ended their Cougar careers as the winningest group of seniors in program history, at 114-34. As a senior, the American Volleyball Coaches Association chose Keeana and teammate Lindi Thomas for the NAIA First Team All-Region, and both also were First Team All-Conference.
Individually, she was a defensive force, shattering school records for block assists in a season (103), and in a career (318). She holds the Cougar record for career solo blocks (36) and is second highest in single-season solo blocks (18). She finished her career with 632 kills and 104 digs.
She recalls worrying about fitting in on her new team as a freshman, as the only player who didn’t play club volleyball. In fact, she didn’t even start playing volleyball until she was a junior in high school, and had focused more on cheerleading, basketball, and track.
“I didn’t think I would have anything in common with any of the girls” she said. “I thought I might be shut out, and wouldn’t have the confidence they had. They welcomed me right in, and never excluded me from anything. Now I have best friends and sisters for the rest of my life.”
That was especially important to her as a first-generation college student.
“It’s not like I have someone to talk to in my family, to ask them how to go through college. I kind of have to do it on my own,” Keeana said. “Being part of the team gave me a sense of security as a new college student, because I had a group to be part of immediately.”
Keeana hopes to stay close to home as she begins her law enforcement career. She actually started as a nursing major, but discovered early on that wasn’t for her. An internship with the Kokomo Police Department piqued her interest in majoring in criminal justice, with a minor in psychology.
She appreciates the chance to earn her degree in criminal justice close to her home in Peru, so her extended family, including the grandparents who raised her, can come watch her play.
“My grandma is my biggest advocate,” she said. “She’s my number one, go-to for everything. She’s always involved in everything I do.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.