By MICHAEL CARNES
For The Herald
Almost a century ago, the New York Yankees had a batting lineup that was so dominant, they were dubbed “Murderers’ Row.”
That 1927 lineup included legends like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and tore through the American League that year, winning 110 games and sweeping the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.
The Wayne State volleyball team seems to have developed a 21st century version of “Murderers’ Row” this fall, one that has ripped through the Northern Sun Conference and enters the postseason as one of the favorites to win the NCAA Division II national title.
The ’27 Yankees’ offense not only beat other teams — they blew teams out. That year, they hit .307 and outscored their opponents by more the 3 1/2 runs per game and was highlighted by Ruth’s then-record 60 home runs in a season.
Wayne State’s gang of killers — led by outside hitters Taya Beller, Kelsie Cada and Channatee Robles and middle hitter Maggie Brahmer — has been equally ruthless, winning 27 of 28 matches and giving up only six sets in 18 Northern Sun Conference matches and 11 sets overall while compiling a national-best .324 hitting percentage.
Scott Kneifl, in his 19th year as Wayne State head coach and himself a lifelong fan of the Bronx Bombers, understands the connection between the ’27 Yankees and his volleyball team.
“”They’re unbelievable teammates and don’t really care who gets the credit. They just want to go out and win, and that’s what that Murderers’ Row team was all about — winning,” he said.
Juniors Brahmer and Beller are both returning All-Americans from last year’s 30-3 team that won the NSIC regular-season title and hosted the Central Regional, and they are the Ruth and Gehrig of the lineup with their capabilities.
“Taya can fly,” Kneifl said, noting that she can jump over 10 feet high off of one foot. “I’ll stand next to her in practice and it feels like an airplane is taking off. I can’t imagine what that looks like on the opponents’ side. I’m just glad she’s on our side.”
The junior from Humphrey leads the conference in blocks per set (1.11) and is also second in hitting percentage (.397) and points per set (4.46) while ranking fifth with 3.6 kills per set.
Beller said she gets the biggest kick out of sharing the moment with her teammates when she takes off and puts one past the defense.
“I like turning toward my team and saying good job because they allowed me to do that,” she said. “It’s fun to look at their faces and know it was their kill.”
Being part of such a formidable hitting foursome comes down to trust for Beller.
“When I’m out of the rotation, and vice versa, we just have that trust with each other that somebody is going to put one away when we get a chance, so it’s a lot of fun to be part of,” she said.
Brahmer, a Pierce native, is the leading hitter in the conference and is ranked ninth in NCAA Div. II with a .420 percentage. Brahmer has been a nightmare for opposing defenses her entire career, which actually didn’t start until 2021, as she redshirted in 2019 and missed 2020 due to the pandemic cancelling the season.
“She’s like death and taxes in that she’s always so consistent,” Kneifl said. “She’s hit over .400 her entire career, and that’s unheard of especially with the competition we play against.”
What makes Brahmer such a force, Kneifl said, is her internal fire.
“She’s one of the biggest competitors I’ve coached. She feels like I feel, but I can’t do anything about it sitting on the bench. She takes it on the court and plays with a ton of fire.”
Brahmer said having one of the best setters in the conference in senior Rachel Walker is a big reason why she’s had the success she’s having.
“We’re very fortunate to have two of the best setters in the conference with Rachel and then with Ally Beresford coming in today,” she said after the team’s win over St. Cloud State on Saturday, where Walker missed the game due to a sprained ankle. “They get me where I need to go, and when I get up there I just try to find an open spot and take a hack at it.”
Brahmer said the team has so many options at the net that makes it fun to be a part of.
“It’s really hard for other teams to see a three-hitter lineup, and Rachel in front doesn’t make it any easier because she’s a great blocker and can hit the ball as well,” she said.
The Wildcats are also blessed with two outside hitters who are similar, and yet opposites in both experience and how they contribute.
Senior Kelsie Cada has developed into an outstanding overall player during her four years in a Wildcat uniform. The Wahoo native contributes both offensively and defensively, averaging 3.41 kills and 2.7 dig per set, and is among the best in the NSIC in serving and points per set.
“Everything we do revolves around her,” Kneifl said. “It’s so much more than hitting and blocking with her because she has to control that first ball so many times and is so good at that. Her attacking has taken flight this season and she’s hitting at one of the highest percentages we’ve had from an outside hitter. She’s a for-sure All-American.
“I just trust my teammates to help if I don’t get a good swing and just go up and try to read the block and put it somewhere,” Cada said of her hitting talents.
If there is a Rookie of the Year competition like they have in baseball, Robles would certainly be in the mix for the honor after her work this season.
The Norfolk native has hit .206 this season and is becoming a reliable fourth choice at the net, as her leaping ability makes her a solid option both offensively and defensively.
“You get Chachi in a one-on-one situation, look out,” Kneifl said of the freshman. “She hits at some crazy angles and does things in practice where us coaches just look at each other and go ‘Wow!’ The sky is the limit with her.”
Robles credits her elder teammates with helping her achieve the early success she’s seen in her college career.
“We have such great leaders everywhere on the court and they’ll talk with me between points or when I’m out of the rotation and help me out,” she said. “When I get one in a sweet spot, there are really no words for it. I just hit it as hard as I can.”
Making a lot of this possible is senior setter Rachel Walker, herself an All-NSIC selection who recently reached the 4,000-assist plateau and is one shy of the 1,000 mark for the season heading into Tuesday’s opening round conference tournament game against Sioux Falls.
With all the options she has to work with, sometimes the hardest part is choosing which one to go to.
“It really depends on what’s on the other side of the net,” Walker said. “For example, I don’t want to run Taya into a double block. They all do different things well and it’s awesome to have so many options to work with. A lot of people will focus on Taya and Maggie and that opens it up for Kelsie or Channatee.”
And while the going has already been deadly to opposing lineups, the Wildcat version of Murderers’ Row knows that there is still a lot of season left and bigger goals to shoot for.
“We feel great where we are now, but we’re unsatisfied,” Cada said. “We have other goals to accomplish and want to keep working and try to max out and leave this season with no regrets.”
“Coach wants us to peak at the end of the season,” Brahmer added. “We’ve done the work and we need to stay healthy and max out at the end of the year and see what we can get done.”
“There’s no added pressure for us,” Kneifl stated. “We just need to go out and have fun and play like we have all season long. We side out at over 65 percent, and if we can keep doing that, we can’t be beat.”