by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
There are some athletes who can really bring the hammer down. Zimmerman volleyball is fortunate to have one of those in Nikki O’Keefe, whose powerful spikes and serves have helped the Thunder win 14 of 17 matches so far.
And it’s a huge bonus that this fourth-year starter is also the school’s all-time leader in digs.
“Nikki is a complete player. Serving, digging, defense, kills — she does everything for us,” said coach Rita Belka. “One game she didn’t have so many kills but she made 21 digs and seven aces. She always leads us in something. Last year, we even had to use her at setter for a while, and she did a good job.”
O’Keefe is modest in height (5-foot-9) and leaping ability, but more than compensates with physical strength, body control, court awareness and a multitude of skills, including a wicked jump serve that she sharpened for her senior season. Her one weakness is blocking, always going against taller players. But she find ways to get the kills down.
“I have to play smart,” she said. “I know when to roll, when to tip, when to put one down line or across the court. I pretty much put it where they are not.”
O’Keefe has 583 career kills, 152 aces, and a school-record 713 digs, plus 160 assists, most of them last year when she helped out at setter. This fall, she has fired off 147 kills and 57 aces while making 130 digs. And Hammer Time with O’Keefe frequently comes during clutch situations for the Thunder.
Durability is another strength. She has played 99 varsity matches without missing one. A starter since ninth grade, she made all-conference last year (with 251 digs and 38 assists). Her teams have gone 9-17 in ninth grade, 14-14 in 10th, and 12-15 in 11th.
This year the Thunder are 14-3 overall, 6-1 in conference, a game out of first, winning 12 of the last 13.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” O’Keefe beams, “because you’ve worked so hard, every year, and you’ve been one of the worst teams, and now other teams are afraid to play you. That’s like, wow!”
O’Keefe had a scare Sept. 2, two days before the opener, when she had an auto accident in St. Paul, driving to the state fair, where she worked at a malts and burgers stand. She had a broken nose and sore mouth from hitting the steering wheel. She able to play in the opener at Princeton, wearing a mask in the early matches. It’s still a little sore, she said.
As a captain this year (with Brooke Inman and Amanda Meleen) she is working hard on being positive and encouraging to teammates, fighting her natural compulsion to get a little angry when she misses a hit or serve. “I can’t get down on myself, I’ve gotta be a captain,” she stated.
That includes pulling the team in for a huddle at pivotal times and doing a little bossing other times.
“Like if an outside hitter doesn’t get out far enough so she is early on hits, or if the sideline is too open, I am really vocal about stuff like that.”
Her career highlights so far include serving 39-for-39 with eight aces in a five-game loss to Cathedral last year, and beating Park Center in a five-gamer in the playoffs that got Zimmerman to a section semifinal for the first time.
She hopes the best is yet to come, and set high goals for her final season.
“For myself, I want to be conference MVP and make all conference again,” she said, “and for my team to make state. I have never believed in a team so much as this one. My goal is for us to go to state. I really think we can do it.”
O’Keefe intends to play college volleyball, as a hitter in D-III or libero or DS if she goes D-II.
Aside from volleyball, her favorite pastime is “going home and playing with my little sister,” referring to 1-year-old Makinzie. While describing herself as “really competitive in everything I do,” ultimately O’Keefe wants to be a stay-at-home mom.
“That’s my real dream, because I really like kids. But I am going to get my degree in case I need it.”
THE O’KEEFE SCORECARD
Personal file — Age: 17 … Family: parents Monty and Tiffany; brother Josh, 18; sisters Lexi 11, and Makinzie 1 … Sport: volleyball … Other activities: National Honor Society, Dig In Diversity, Prom Committee … Academics: 3.4 GPA … College: undecided where; volleyball; elementary education or nursing
Favorite stuff — Class; Gym … TV show: anything on Food Network …. Movie: “Bridesmaids” … Music: CW, Jason Aldean, In Synch, Bon Jovi, Journey …. Food: the Old Country Buffet; or just steak, potatoes and corn …. Drink: water, juice …. Teams: Vikings, Twins, Wild …. Athlete: Justiin Morneau … Would like to visit: Jamaica or someplace like that