Abby Koenen, a 2018 Burlington High School graduate, and Union Grove graduate Kylie Wilks have been part a resurgent University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women’s volleyball team this season (Jason Arndt/Standard Press).

Local players, coach part of surging UWM volleyball program

By Jason Arndt

In retrospect, Union Grove High School graduate Kylie Wilks didn’t believe a former Southern Lakes Conference rival would join her on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee women’s volleyball team.

But, it happened after Abby Koenen crossed the stage at Burlington High School in 2018, just months following her Demons Division 1 state championship and committed to UW-Milwaukee.

Burlington High School graduate Abby Koenen, a sophomore women’s volleyball player at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, shouts a cheer following her team’s huddle before the Panthers took the court in Saturday’s Panther Invite at the Klotsche Center in Milwaukee (Jason Arndt/Standard Press).

“Not really,” said Wilks, who left Union Grove in 2016, as she recalled seeing multiple recruits passing through campus. “It is kind of hard once we get here to keep track, obviously you see a lot of recruits, as they come on visits.”

Since then, Wilks, a two-time Southern Lakes Conference Athlete of the Year who has achieved a milestone of 1,000 career digs and Koenen have been a part of the Panthers team culture that is led by head coach Susie Johnson, who lives in the Waterford area.

The Racine County connection, along with 16 other Panthers have been riding high, starting the 2019 campaign with a 9-1 record.

Koenen, a sophomore at UWM, attributes the team success to strong camaraderie, which includes a common goal.

“Everyone here gets along very well and we know we are all here to take care of business,” Koenen said.

While the two competed against each other in high school, and joined forces in Milwaukee, there were some common characteristics and interests they did not know about until they went on long bus rides and came together for team-bonding events.

Wilks, who played for the Wisconsin Juniors club volleyball program, remembered seeing Koenen compete at a younger age bracket.

Wilks, however, did not fully realize how spirited Koenen was until she arrived to Milwaukee.

“When she got here, I really saw her open up. When you get to know her, she has such an awesome spirit. She is so fun and light-hearted is what I would describe her.”

Koenen, meanwhile, quickly learned something new about Wilks, whose family hosted the team for a dinner on their farm in August 2018.

“She raises cattle. We went to her farm last spring season. I never knew that about her,” Koenen said.

What Koenen did know about Wilks was her legacy at Union Grove, where she holds school records while notching multiple state and conference accolades.

“When we were scouting at Burlington, we knew Kylie was a big part of Union Grove, she was amazing defensive and offensive player,” Koenen said.

Union Grove graduate Kylie Wilks, a senior outside hitter at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, gets fired up with her Panther teammates during Saturday’s Panther Invite at the Klotsche Center in Milwaukee (Jason Arndt/Standard Press).

Recruiting recollection
Panthers coach Johnson, who grew up in Racine, said both players presented different strengths when she recruited them to play in Milwaukee.

Wilks, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter, showed a tremendous work ethic and competitive spirit for her size.

“Kylie is an enormous competitor and she works really hard. She is extremely athletic,” said Johnson. “Her limitations with her size, she doesn’t think about that. She doesn’t care about that. I have known her a long time since she was little. I knew how we could fit her into our team and our offense.”

Wilks recalled playing other positions while a member of Wisconsin Juniors, like setter or along the back row.

“They wanted me to have the best chance to play collegiate volleyball. So, I started training at the setter position, I also played back row,” she said.

“I was actually looking at schools to become a setter, but Milwaukee was the only school that recruited me to hit. That is why I have such a soft spot for Milwaukee because they really gave me a chance when no one else would.”

For Koenen, a 6-0 outside hitter/right side hitter, her experience on winning teams and strength are two attributes Johnson saw during the recruiting process.

Koenen’s breakout junior and senior seasons certainly helped, according to Johnson, who has seen the former Burlington hitter develop confidence since her freshman year at Milwaukee.

“It was how she performed her junior/senior year. I think she has gotten a lot better and gotten a lot more confidence. She is a very good athlete,” Johnson said. “She has a great work ethic, understands the game, and she knows how to win coming from Burlington.”

Wilks a workhorse
Wilks, a senior team captain, has been a key leader for the Panthers since she started as a freshman.

Wilks, who surpassed 1,000 career digs last Friday at the Klotsche Center in Milwaukee, showed leadership and often assured her teammates after every point during the Panther Invite.

That role does not come as a surprise to Johnson.

“She has played for four years, she has played every match. I have kept her in and she has started all of the matches since she was a freshman,” Johnson said.

“She is quite a great leader, an excellent teammate, and an excellent player to coach. I can’t say enough about her.”

Career mark
Wilks credited her team, coaches as well as the UWM athletic program for helping her achieve the recent milestone.

“It feels pretty good. It is exciting. Honestly, I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and the coaching staff and just the entire athletic program in general,” she said.

As of Wednesday, Wilks has tallied 872 total kills, 89 assists, 1,040 digs, 71 service aces and 81 total blocks.