Sept. 16, 2013
By Jon Cooper
Kele Eveland didn’t believe she had the look of a winner but she knew she had the heart, the work ethic and the game of one.
A U.S. National Team member, an All-American and a four-time All-ACC selection, Eveland can soon add Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Famer to her resume. She will be inducted as part of the Class of 2013 on Oct. 18, joining swimmer Shilo Ayalon, football player Kelly Campbell, track athlete Andria King, baseball player Richard Lewis, golfer Troy Matteson and two-sport star (football and baseball) and football assistant coach Billy Williamson.
“Looking back on it, I’m just this chubby little girl from Michigan, all heart to play a game and get a win and figure out a way to win with people around me,” said Eveland, whose No. 16 is the only retired number worn by a Georgia Tech female athlete. “It wasn’t ever anything selfish. I wanted to win and people knew that about me. It was putting it all out there.”
“She had the fire on court and certainly had the skill and the leadership but she kind of had this chip on her shoulder and hunger that forced her to drive and push herself and her teammates every day in practice or in the classroom,” said Bond Shymansky, her coach at Georgia Tech in 2002 and 2003 and currently the head coach at Marquette. “She had this impact on people that everyone else recognized that she was special. But she wasn’t willing to just be special she wanted to work and show everybody how they could also be special. She just had an infectious passion and fire.
“I would tease Kele all the time when she played for me,” he added. “I would say, ‘Who has the best hands in the gym right now?’ and she would say, ‘Well, it’s not me.’ I would say, ‘Who’s the fastest athlete in the gym right now?’ she would say, ‘It’s not me.’ ‘Who’s the most talented player in the gym?’ ‘No, not me.’ We would just laugh and laugh because she would win on nerve and gall and on fight.”
If there is an assist record in the history of the Georgia Tech program, Eveland has it. She graduated with 6,464 career assists, 362 more than second-place Andrea Nachtrieb, who played on the Flats (1993-1996 and Hall of Fame Class of 2008). Her 13.38 assists per set are a Tech career-record. She has the most assists in a season (1,905 in 2002), holds three of the top seven places in the all-time season assists top-10, and has two of the top three places for most assists in a match.
She was ACC Rookie of the Year in 2000, was second-team All-ACC as a sophomore and junior and capped off her career by earning ACC Player of the Year in 2003, during which she also became Georgia Tech’s and the ACC’s initial First-Team All-American.
But the numbers and honors Eveland prefers to define her college career are those put up by the Yellow Jackets. In her four years as starting setter, Georgia Tech won 81 percent of its matches, going 111-26, and never lost more than eight matches in a season. In ACC play the Jackets won almost 83 percent of the time (53-11), never losing more than four times and only once her senior season. Tech took home two regular-season conference championships, an ACC Tournament championship and reached the NCAA Tournament all four seasons. They peaked her senior season, going 34-4 (15-1), winning the ACC Tournament and reaching the Elite Eight in the NCAAs.
Regardless of the heights she achieved, Eveland never forgot what it took to get there from her starting point as the girl from the working-class family growing up in Grand Rapids.
“I would wear the holiest knee pads that I owned to play our matches because I worked for those holes,” she said. “I was raised a blue-collar kid. My dad’s a UPS driver and my mom was a high school counselor. My siblings and I, we knew how to work hard. I had an extreme competitive nature in everything I did. The team sports I just loved to play with people and make people around me better and wanting to fight.”
Shymansky remembers how she fought every time she took the floor.
“There were days in practice where she knew she wasn’t doing well enough and she would tell the team to line up on the line because she needed to play better and she was going to run and do sprints during practice,” he said. “Again, it’s this unmitigated gall to say, ‘Oh no. I want to work harder. I want to perform better and I’m going to challenge myself to do it and if I have to punish myself to get me to focus in I’m going to do it.’ I’ve never had another player that had the ability to command that with their team. Nobody was mad at her. They all recognized, ‘If Kele says SHE needs to do better then we all need to do better. We’ll run then we’ll get back out on the court.’ She had that blue-collar work ethic and always felt like she was the underdog. I think it’s what drove her to success.”
That competitive streak came from her family, where her mother, and two sisters, Mya and Ki played college volleyball, her other sister Breanna, was a three-time All-America pole-vaulter at Kansas State, and her father, Jack, played rugby at Central Michigan, and her brother Derik, coaches baseball and basketball.
“We just loved competition,” she said. “Everything turned into a game, whether it was doing laundry, who could fold the towels the quickest — I think my dad was the mastermind behind that — creating games among all of us kids to do something the best and wanting to be the best. Our parents really did a good job of teaching us to enjoy competition but not making it personal.”
Away from the court, there was a magnetic side to Eveland that instantly won people over. Shymansky recalled one such day while having lunch in the Athletic Center with head football coach Chan Gailey and head basketball coach Paul Hewitt.
“Kele walked by and just said she needed to tell me something,” he said. “She said hello, said her piece and just walked away. Both Chan and Paul looked at me and said, ‘She’s really special. Isn’t she?’ I thought, ‘That’s amazing. They had seen us play only a handful of times but they knew she was what really made it tick.’ I said, ‘I can’t even tell you all the ways that she’s just impacting our program on a daily basis.’ There’s a ripple effect I think that allowed Georgia Tech Volleyball to take off.”
After graduation, Eveland played four years in Europe.
Then, after serving as a volunteer assistant coach at Tech in 2009, she was hired as an assistant coach at San Diego State, where she is in her fifth season helping the Aztecs program take off. Her current protege, Johnna Fouch was Honorable Mention All-America in 2012 and was named the Mountain West Conference’s Setter of the Year for the second straight season.
“It’s no shock at all,” said Shymansky. “I’ve seen the relationship that she’s had with her current setter. I’ve had a chance to watch them interact in a training setting. It’s unbelievable. She’s a rising star in anything that she does. The second you meet her you just kind of know, ‘Oh, she’d be great in whatever she chooses to be great at.'”
Obviously Shymansky isn’t pleased about the prospect of going out and recruiting against her.
“It’s really good that she’s on the West Coast because we don’t bump into each other very much,” he said, with a laugh. “Just imagine if you’re a parent, imagine, you’re walking in the door to meet with her and you’re thinking about your daughter and you’re looking at her and talking to her. You just go, ‘Oh, I want my kid to be like you. So I want you looking out for my kid.’ It’s a slam dunk.”
Even the schedule-makers have smiled on Kele, as the Aztecs have no matches the week of the induction on Thursday and Saturday, allowing her a window to fly to Tech on Friday for the banquet.
The ceremony promises to be special, as not only will Shymansky present her, but she expects her entire family to attend, including her grandfather, who is going through his second bout with throat cancer. He’s got that same fighter attitude.
“The first thing he told my dad was, ‘I’m coming to Kele’s Georgia Tech induction,'” she said. “He wasn’t going to miss this because now he knows the state of his cancer. He was a prisoner of war for 28 months in the Korean War. I call him such a trooper.”
Eveland also plans on seeing a number of her former teammates, who still hold a special place in her heart.
“The Hall of Fame is a great honor because I feel like I represent my team,” she said. “It means a great deal because I represent the family. I know I represent my team with class, I know I represent my family with class and in everything that I do I know that I have and I will represent Georgia Tech with class.”
Kele Eveland will be inducted along with six other former student-athletes on Friday, Oct. 18, at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center. Tickets for the induction dinner are $50 and can be purchased through the Alexander-Tharpe Fund at 404-894-6124. The inductees will also be honored during Tech’s football game against Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 19, at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
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