With coaches, family and friends in attendance, Oakdale High seniors and volleyball standouts McKenzie Willet and Justina Keith made their biggest moves of 2011 inside the Mustang gymnasium.
And they did with pen strokes.
The pair signed their names to written commitments on Dec. 12 to attend the University of California, Merced on partial volleyball scholarships.
Both will join the seven-year-old university for its second ever National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics season in 2012.
“I get a UC education and I get to play volleyball at the same time,” Willet said. “I’m really excited.”
“I visited the campus and I really liked it,” Keith added. “More than anything I wanted to play college volleyball, and the fact that it is at a local UC makes it a no-brainer.”
Both shined for Oakdale coach Shelli Ponce in prep varsity careers that saw huge production during their junior and senior years at OHS. They led Oakdale to a 22-6 season, 12-2 Valley Oak League record and 2-1 run in to the Division III Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs in 2011.
Their efforts earned the attention of first year UC Merced coach Allen McCreary, who selected the pair to join a few of their former teammates for the 2012-13 season.
McCreary’s offer was a dream come true for both players, and a serious relief for Keith after an offseason injury nearly ruined her chance at a senior season and college scholarship.
Keith missed nearly the entire summer and some of Oakdale’s preseason after she suffered a spinal fracture just two weeks before an expected trip to the Junior Olympics. Twelve weeks later she made a triumphant return to the court and quickly re-established her position as a dominant outside hitter. She would go on to lead Oakdale with 184 kills.
“There was a point where I was trying to make myself feel okay about not playing volleyball at the next level even though it had been my dream forever,” Keith said. “I knew I had missed a crucial part of recruiting and I felt like I had to make myself feel at peace with the idea of not moving on.
“When I started actually getting back into the game I was really relieved to get an offer.”
Keith said she looks forward to playing at Merced because Willet won’t be her only former teammate to reunite with. Both Oakdale seniors played with Modesto setter Genna Garrett, while Willet played with Pitman standout Vickie Rouse. The four will join Fresno Pacific University transfer Kathryn Blake as big additions to the 2012 roster.
“This is a very strong class for coach McCreary,” UC Merced Associate Director of Recreation and Athletics David Noble said on the school website. “In this group, we are bringing in five great students, that happen to be great people that excel in volleyball. This group is competitive with great court IQ’s, and the drive to keep getting better. They will make an immediate impact on coach McCreary’s program.”