A Name to Remember

Christie Jenkins
Kelli Tennant had to overcome chronic knee troubles to become one of the nation's best youth players, and later a standout college player at USC.

Needles and knees—two words that athletes do not want to hear used in the same sentence.

But for Saddleback Valley (Lake Forest, Calif.) club player Kelli Tennant, needles and knees at one point last year became to her like peanut butter is to jelly.

“I had 45 shots total in my knees by the end of the treatment,” said Tennant. “Most people freak out when I tell them. It was pretty painful. I had shots of Vitamin B and Novocaine to help the tissues.”

Tennant needed the shots because of reoccurring knee problems that have plagued her since her childhood days stemming from rapid growth (she was nearly 5’ in kindergarten) and the normal wear and tear on the volleyball court.

The knee troubles reached an apex at last summer’s Volleyball Festival when she landed straight on her knee caps in the finals. Her knees worsened further after a whirlwind round of camps (13 straight days without going home to USA Volleyball, Stanford and USC camps).
“That was a lot of pounding over a one month span,” said Tennant. “When I got home, I was out for two months of the high school season. None of my knee problems ever had time to heal.”

The time Tennant took to rest her knees, she admits, wasn’t enough. But sitting on the sidelines and watching her Chaparral High School (Temecula, Calif.) teammates got to be old news, bad knees or not.

“But I love playing high school volleyball,” said Tennant. “I love it because I get to play for my school and in front of all of my friends. It was hard watching my friends play because I wanted to be out there so bad.”

Statements like that are why Tennant is so revered by those around her and why she has developed into one of the country’s top juniors stars with a year still to go in high school. Tennant verbally committed in early March to two-time defending champion USC and was also seriously considering Pepperdine, UCLA and Stanford.

“Kelli is a coach’s dream,” said Saddleback Valley club director George Carey, Sr., who coaches Tennant on the 17-1 George team. “She’s a real jewel. She is so focused and wants to be the best she can be. She constantly thinks about volleyball and how she can get better. She’s a wonderful person and just the neatest kid.”

Excelling at the game isn’t something that came naturally for the 6’3” (she grew recently) outside hitter, who helped lead Chaparral to the CIF Southern Section Division I championship last fall and helped her Saddleback team win a Volleyball Festival title last summer.

“I’ve had to work very hard at this,” said Tennant, the CIF Southern Section Division I Co-MVP last year and a PrepVolleyball.com All-American pick. “In the beginning I was absolutely horrible. It was the worst thing I had ever seen in my life. I’m out there in braces and glasses and 6’ tall and I had no idea what I was doing. I wanted to quit. I cried a lot. Volleyball did not come natural for me. My dad tapes everything I do. I’ve watched tapes from back then. I was really bad.”

However, her affinity for the sport prevented a little awkwardness from creating any kind of a road block.

“I’m a hard worker. I am determined to get things done,” said Tennant. “I knew if I worked hard that I could do this. I set my standards very high. Now, this all means more to me because I worked hard to get it.”

Chaparral varsity coach Stephanie Benjamin raves about Tennant as a person.

“The two most important aspects about Kelli are her focus and drive, being one, and her amazing attitude,” said Benjamin. “I have never coached a kid like Kelli. She’s got a great attitude. Every time I talked to a college coach, they talked about wanting her in their program because of who she is.”

Benjamin needed to point no further than Tennant’s actions during the time she was injured early in the 2003 season.

“She was the water girl for the team,” said Benjamin. “She was carrying equipment and getting players water. That is how humble she is. She’s a blue-chipper. I’ve had a lot of good athletes, but never a kid in Kelli’s class.”

A little tough love from coaches throughout the years is something Tennant believes has helped her develop into a well-rounded player.

“Defense has been my biggest challenge,” said Tennant, who has a 3.83 GPA and is a member of the California Scholarship Federation. “Before, I never played back row. But my coaches have let me stay in there and deal with it whether I am playing well or not. My first year at Saddleback, they told me I was going to have to deal with (playing in the back row). That’s the only way you learn. Because of that, I have developed into an all-around player.”

Tennant has simple advice for younger players aspiring to get to that next level.

“Keep working at it,” said Tennant. “It might be hard in the beginning, but you will get better if you work hard and have a passion for the game and strive to get better.”

When volleyball isn’t on her plate, Tennant enjoys keeping scrapbooks and penning stories. She wrote a 100 page missive for her creative writing class.

“It’s about a girl who’s an outcast and lives in New York,” explained Tennant, who would like to be a television news anchor someday. “She becomes a journalist and a supermodel and becomes a mentor to someone she meets.”

Carey, who has been coaching club volleyball since 1977, has seen some 50 future Division I players come through his door. His comments regarding Tennant speak volumes coming from a coach with such a history in the sport.

“She’s one of the rare ones,” said Carey. “I tell her once in a while to laugh or giggle and enjoy the experience and the level she is playing at. She’s a driven player. She’s almost too intense. She has extremely high goals and puts in the time to make those happen. She’s a phenomenal team player and definitely a player to watch in the future.”

Originally published in June 2004

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