Why, when NCAA offered student-athletes an extra year, this BYU star jumped at the chance
Kennedy Eschenberg and the No. 16 seed BYU Cougars will play in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament next week against either Rider or UCLA in Omaha, Nebraska
Middle blocker Kennedy Eschenberg has been on BYU’s nationally prominent women’s volleyball team for five years, but the former two-sport star when she was known as Kennedy Redding at Bountiful High doesn’t want to see her career end.
That’s why Eschenberg’s hand quickly shot in the air, figuratively, when the NCAA announced last August that student-athletes in all sports affected by the COVID-19 pandemic would get an extra year of eligibility, if they want it.
“BYU has been more than I could have ever imagined. I had all these dreams, and I have been able to play, which has been awesome. But more than just being able to play, just the memories that I have made have been so incredible with all the players and the coaches. — Kennedy Eschenberg
“I definitely want it,” Eschenberg said Wednesday as the No. 16 seed Cougars (16-1) continued preparation for the 2020-21 NCAA Tournament, which begins next week in Omaha, Nebraska, for all 48 teams in the field. “I am going to come back. It will be my fifth year of playing, sixth year being here because I redshirted (in 2016). I can’t imagine being done. I am so grateful for it.”
Making its ninth-straight appearance in women’s volleyball’s version of the Big Dance, BYU gets a first-round bye and will face either Rider or UCLA in a second-round matchup on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. MDT in the CHI Health Center Arena.
Final numbers aren’t in yet, but it appears the majority of BYU’s seniors in other sports are not taking advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility freeze. For instance, of the 16 seniors the football team honored last December before the San Diego State game, only two — Uriah Leiataua and Jared Kapisi — are coming back.
The only seniors on the volleyball team — Eschenberg and outside hitter Taylen Ballard-Nixon of Clovis, California — plan to return, head coach Heather Olmstead confirmed Thursday.
“Yeah, I think it has been, ‘advantage us,’” Olmstead said.
For the 6-foot-5 Eschenberg, also a four-time all-state basketball player at Bountiful High (more on that in a bit), it was a no-brainer, and not because she lacks professional opportunities if she decides to go in that direction.
“I guess the main reason I am doing it is I just love volleyball so much, and I love being here at BYU, and I just want to play as long as I can,” she said. “Also, I want to keep getting better, and keep becoming the best I can be, so I am just excited to be able to do that at BYU.”
Eschenberg met BYU men’s volleyball star Zach Eschenberg after her redshirt freshman season through teammates on both teams, and the couple married in 2018. Zach Eschenberg, who is 6-6, graduated last year, but is playing for the BYU men’s team this spring as a fifth-year graduate student because his fourth season last year was cut short by the pandemic.
“It is not like I am waiting a whole ’nother year,” Kennedy said. “It is nice because it is just in the fall. So it is not like it really puts our future plans on hold. Zach will still be here for (graduate) school. So it also worked out for us, too.”
Olmstead was thrilled when she learned Eschenberg and Ballard-Nixon (who is married to former BYU basketball star Dalton Nixon) are coming back, but her focus presently is on how they will play next week. The Cougars will leave for Omaha on Monday, and be in a bubble-like setting similar to what the NCAA Tournament basketball teams experienced in Indianapolis (men) and San Antonio (women).
“Fortunately, we are used to it,” Olmstead said, recalling similar restrictions when the Cougars traveled for WCC games the past three months.
As for Eschenberg, Olmstead said the two-time All-WCC first team selection will be difficult to replace, even next December when the second national tournament of the calendar year is held.
“Kennedy is our rock, especially this year. She is the foundation of what is BYU volleyball. It is hard to put into words what Kennedy has meant. She’s just been so solid from the minute she stepped on campus. — BYU coach Heather Olmstead
“Kennedy is our rock, especially this year,” Olmstead said. “She is the foundation of what is BYU volleyball. It is hard to put into words what Kennedy has meant. She’s just been so solid from the minute she stepped on campus.
“Kennedy is the most humble player I have ever coached, and the hardest worker,” Olmstead continued. “She is eager to get better. She is eager for feedback from coaches. She connects with all her teammates and coaches. People are drawn to her, and she has continued to get better and better at volleyball. … I could go on and on. She’s pretty special.”
Olmstead started recruiting then-Kennedy Redding when she was a 15-year-old freshman at Bountiful High, but she had some stiff competition — from BYU’s women’s basketball coaches. A lifelong BYU fan, Eschenberg knew she wanted to go to BYU, but couldn’t decide if she wanted to play volleyball or basketball.
She didn’t want to do both, as the Hamson sisters, Jennifer and Sara, have done.
“It was a super hard decision,” she said. “I realized I couldn’t do both, and needed to focus on just one and see how good I could get at just one. … I loved both sports and it was so hard. But I just felt super good about volleyball. I love the BYU basketball coaches. I still love them, they are amazing.
“I loved the volleyball coaches. I loved both programs. In the end, I felt really good about volleyball and so I chose volleyball.”
BYU women’s coach Jeff Judkins is in good company. When Kennedy was a pre-teen, she was involved in every activity imaginable — ballet, dance, soccer, tennis, golf, gymnastics, softball, basketball, you name it.
Her 5-foot-10 mother, Marci Redding, was a dancer and wanted Kennedy to pursue that. But her 6-foot father, Ken, who played football and baseball at Sacramento State, sat down with her when she was 12 and told her to focus on just a handful of activities. She chose volleyball and basketball, wise considering she would eventually tower over both parents and be slightly taller than her two older brothers.
“My mom was heartbroken, but it has worked out pretty well,” she said.
Indeed it has.
Eschenberg will graduate in June in elementary education with two minors (family life and teaching English as a second language) and completed her student teaching last fall, hurriedly setting up a gig when the fall season was canceled.
Eschenberg ranks No. 6 in the country with an average of 1.52 blocks per set and is No. 11 in hitting percentage (.459). She was recently named WCC Defensive Player of the Week for the third straight week.
“BYU has been more than I could have ever imagined,” she said. “I had all these dreams, and I have been able to play, which has been awesome. But more than just being able to play, just the memories that I have made have been so incredible with all the players and the coaches.
“I can’t describe how special it is to play at BYU and have Cougar Nation behind you,” she continued. “It has just been so, so special. I can’t even describe it. And I am grateful that I am not done.”
Not for another eight months.