By David Willis
---- — Rachel Schnakenberg knew she had her work cut out for her one year ago, having just moved from Virginia to Andover, if she was going to make the powerhouse Golden Warrior varsity volleyball team as a junior.
“I was so nervous,” said Schnakenberg. “The coaches told me I was either going to make varsity or JV and I thought, ‘Juniors can be on JV?’ That worried me. It was tough and I knew Andover had such a good team. But I ended up making it so it was all good.”
Not only did she make the team, but she has emerged as a star for the recently crowned Merrimack Valley Conference co-champions.
“Rachel has really blossomed this year,” Golden Warriors coach George Sullivan said. “She came to us for the first time last year and it was quite an adjustment. But she has improved so much and she is one of our top guns now. She is our go-to hitter.”
With Schnakenberg in the middle, the Golden Warrior volleyball team closed out the regular season with a stellar 19-1 record, having gone undefeated after a loss in the season-opener.
“It’s been a pretty great year,” said Schnakenberg. “We lost that first game, and were upset. But we picked ourselves up and it has been an amazing season since.”
It has been quite a journey for Schnakenberg from her early years growing up on the other side of the country.
She was raised as a girl in Utah, before moving to Virginia when she was in the sixth grade.
“My mother got a job at the Pentagon so we moved out there and Virginia was great,” said Schnakenberg, whose soon-to-be stepfather is former NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam. “People up here think it’s really boring out there. But I was right outside of Washington, D.C., so it was very culturally diverse.”
But Schnakenberg and her mother were on the move again last summer, when they moved from Virginia to Andover. After playing varsity volleyball as a sophomore at her old high school (Potomac Falls), she knew she would try out for the Andover High squad.
“I walked in the first day and I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “I didn’t know who to talk to or eat lunch with. It is tough to move around. I moved three times in one year around Utah when I was a kid. But you have to put yourself out there.
“Volleyball ended up being great because the girls really embraced me, so by the time the school year started I had friends. It made everything so much easier”
Schnakenberg both made the varsity squad and earned a starting spot as right-side hitter for the team that finished 23-1 and advanced to the Division 1 state semifinals. She finished third on the team in blocks (69) and added 46 kills.
So she knew a great deal would be expected of her this season as a senior, when she moved into the middle hitter role previously played by 2012 MVC Division 1 Player of the Year Liz Wait.
“I think I was even more nervous because now I had expectations,” she said with a laugh. “We lost nine seniors from last year’s team, and seven of them were starters so we knew it was going to be a different season. But once we lost the first game we kind of said, ‘It’s over with, let’s start playing.’”
Since that point, the Golden Warriors have been simply dominant. Of their 19 straight wins, all but one have come as 3-0 sweeps. The only match they dropped a set was to Haverhill on Sept. 17, and Andover won 3-1.
And Schnakenberg has been right at the center of that success.
At 5-foot-10 — although she said everyone thinks she is taller — Schnakenberg has led the Warriors in kills nine times, including last night, and blocks 10 times. In three games, she has led the team in both categories.
“She has been terrific,” Sullivan said. “She is her own toughest critic. She can be very tough on herself, and sometimes I have to tell her, ‘Calm down and do what you do best.’ She has had a great season.”
But with the postseason still yet to start, Schnakenberg is far from satisfied with her season just yet.
“First off we will hopefully win the North championship,” she said. “And if we are really lucky and work hard enough, maybe we can win the state title. That would be amazing.”