‘The Light’ of Loyola Women’s Volleyball: Karlie McNabb

Though Karlie McNabb was faced with what she said was “the worst day of her life,” she returned to the court three weeks later to have the best season of her career.

On the bus ride back to Rogers Park after a tough 1-3 loss against Marquette University Sept. 6, senior outside hitter Karlie McNabb got a text from her dad, Jerry McNabb, otherwise known as “Jer Bear,” by McNabb and her teammates. 

Her dad’s text was brief, asking her to call him when she got home. The next day, Karlie McNabb was on her way back to Sun Prairie, Wisconsin to say goodbye to her mother, Kim McNabb, who was sick with Stage 4 Gallbladder Cancer. That Sept. 7 afternoon, her mother passed away after nearly a year-long battle. 

Though Karlie McNabb was faced with what she said was “the worst day of her life,” she returned to the court three weeks later to have the best season of her career, where she led the Loyola women’s volleyball team to its first Atlantic 10 (A-10) regular season crown, A-10 championship title and its first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2005. 

According to Karlie McNabb, her volleyball career didn’t start until 7th grade. Her decision to start playing was ultimately influenced by her friends, after being jealous of not playing with them. 

“I joined the team, and then I ended up just falling in love with it,” Karlie McNabb said. “I started club in 8th grade and just fell in love with it more and more each year.” 

Playing at the collegiate level didn’t become a reality for Karlie McNabb until her first year of high school, she said, where she only received three offers — Loyola, Ball State University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She received her official offer from Loyola after a visit during her sophomore year of high school and ended up committing when she got home. 

“What stood out to me, I really loved how she played,” Loyola Head Coach Amanda Berkley said of recruiting Karlie McNabb. “You could tell her teammates loved her. She played every position, back row, front row, just at a high level. She is so athletic. She was someone I thought could make a huge impact on our team. She’s done even more than we thought.”

When she arrived on campus in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was still in full-force. Karlie McNabb said it was a tough year for her because the team didn’t play until the spring of 2021, along with adjusting to college life. In terms of playing, Karlie McNabb said she would only get subbed-in when the team needed a switch-up. 

The following summer, Karlie McNabb said her mom signed her up for private lessons to help improve her game as well as make the starting lineup during her sophomore year. Four months later, she found herself starting against Kansas State University where she put up 15 kills and 10 digs in her only double-double of the season. 

After finding her way into the lineup the previous season, she secured a starting spot her junior year — her career-best so far. Throughout the 2022 season, Karlie McNabb was named A-10 Player of the Week, A-10 Championship Most Outstanding Player after notching a career-high 21 kills, AVCA Honorable Mention All-American and All-Midwest Region, First-Team All Conference and topped off the season with A-10 Player of the Year honors. 

“I’m incredibly proud of her,” Berkley said. “It’s unbelievable what she was able to accomplish. I was like, ‘Yes, thank God,’ because I thought she was deserving of it. It was really, really special. I think the sky’s the limit for her.”

Along with her accolades, Karlie McNabb had either team-high or match-high kills 13 times, averaging 3.20 kills per set throughout the season. Overall, she notched 17 double-doubles, 15 or more kills seven times and had 10 or more kills in 13 of the Ramblers’ 16 conference matches. 

Following her historic season, Karlie McNabb said she can’t help but credit her mom for some of her team’s wins. 

“We always say there’s a few points where we think it might have been her helping me out,” she said. “When we played St. Louis, I had four serves that taped the net and just barely rolled over, which never happens. I remember turning to Amanda and being like, ‘That’s her blowing those balls over that for me.’ She was just definitely with us every single game.” 

Karlie McNabb’s teammate, junior outside hitter Emily Banitt, attested to feeling the presence of Kim’s spirit at their games and echoed Karlie McNabb’s claims. Berkley in particular said she knows her mom handed her some points and she was a big part of why the team won. 

According to Karlie McNabb, her mom was “just the best ever.” She said the first word that came to mind when describing her mom was the light. Kim McNabb’s life motto was to be the light, something she said her mom would remind her of ever since she could remember. 

“That is absolutely what she was,” Karlie McNabb said. “She made everyone around her smile or laugh. She was always there for you when you needed it. She gave you amazing advice. She wanted everyone around her to succeed. She was amazing. We were really lucky to have someone like that.” 

Banitt, one of Karlie McNabb’s closest friends, said she is an inspiration to her and the rest of the team, carrying on Kim’s legacy as the light after arguably the hardest time in her life. 

“The first word that comes to mind is unstoppable,” Bannitt said. “Nothing was going to stop her from playing her heart out, playing for Kim, giving it her all, even the hard days. She always continued to be the light.”

Featured image courtesy of Karlie McNabb

Gabbi Lumma

Gabbi Lumma