(MSUB Athletics photo)

(MSUB Athletics release)

Kylee Clarke doesn’t bust out the nunchucks much anymore.

“If I have friends over and it comes up maybe I’ll grab them and show them a few tricks,” Clarke said with a smile. “I’m pretty sure it would be a hazard for me to carry them around.”

For the freshman setter on the Montana State University Billings volleyball team, they serve as more of a semblance of a past life than a practical use in her daily routine. Since becoming Traditional Weapons Taekwondo World Champion in 2011 at age 12, Clarke has shifted her focus to quarterbacking offenses on the volleyball court.

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All that remains from her dabble into mixed martial arts now is what it taught her mentally – along with a swath of medals and trophies one estimates could fill a small swimming pool. “In taekwondo I definitely learned to shut out certain noises,” Clarke said. “If the crowd was loud, I could shut it out and listen to my heart beating or my breathing. Sometimes if I get worked up on the court, I revert back to that.”

Clarke’s versatile background has translated into a successful start to her career with the Yellowjackets, as she has chalked up three double-doubles already while playing all eight matches and recording no fewer than 26 assists through the first two weeks of the 2017 season. “It is very difficult to find a setter that can step up to the challenge of running an offense as a freshman,” commented MSUB head coach Casey Williams. “Kylee is someone that we have total confidence in running the show.”

The big stage of collegiate volleyball isn’t something that phases Clarke; if anything she feels less pressure now than when she took the mixed martial arts world by storm a half-dozen years ago. “In taekwondo you’re performing alone, and that definitely set the stage for my composure,” Clarke explained. “It also helped a lot with my confidence, and taught me a lot about the value of hard work.”

Clarke was born in Phoenix, Ariz., and when her family moved to Bismarck, N.D., when she was six, her mother Renee knew it would be important to get her involved in as many activities as she could. What started out as a fun, engaging sport for children, taekwondo quickly began to consume Clarke and it wasn’t long before success began to emerge as the result.

First, she started winning regional tournaments in Minneapolis, Minn., and Lincoln, Neb., and she even had a trip to Helena, Mont., in a precursor to the state she’d end up competing in as a college athlete. The traditional weapons category of mixed martial arts does not involve a one-on-one matchup with a competitor. Rather, Clarke’s training and performance was centered around perfecting a routine so detailed that if so much as a thumb wasn’t tucked properly among her fingers, she would be docked points by the judging panel.

After taking third place at the world championships as an 11-year-old, Clarke was ready to better the mark the following year in her return to the event. By age 12 she had achieved third-degree black belt status, the highest level attainable for anyone under the age of 18.

Taking the stage among a field of 10 girls in the second-/third-degree black belt age 12-14 category, Clarke ripped through her 60-second routine flawlessly to wow the judges and crowd in Little Rock, Ark. “I kind of went into worlds not expecting anything, and I was just glad I was there,” Clarke said. “A few girls went after I got my score, but no one had as high as I did. I couldn’t believe it right away.”

Clarke wound up taking the title by a single point, but upon returning home to Bismarck a hefty decision lay in front of her. “As soon as you get your third-degree black belt, it’s a lot harder to get to the upper degrees,” Clarke described, hinting that the decision to pursue an even higher level would have required a lifelong commitment to the sport.

As she prepared to enter the competitive volleyball program at Century High School, Clarke knew her focus would have to shift to mastering a new routine, shared with five other athletes.

Though she competed in a handful of sports as a child, including basketball, soccer, and track, volleyball has always been Clarke’s favorite. “It was a sport that was easy to love because of the atmosphere,” Clarke said. “You are constantly cheering on your teammates. Also, it’s a game where I could think a lot, and I really like that about it.”

Clarke’s gravitation towards setting was fueled by her mother’s history at the position, as Renee was the first Clarke to set at Century HS several decades before her daughter assumed the role. “I got to pick where the ball went, and I also liked that I would be touching the ball on every play,” Clarke commented on becoming a setter.

She began looking at colleges during her junior prep season, in search of a location relatively close to her home town where she could pursue a degree she was interested in. Clarke will study pre-medicine at MSUB, with plans to attend medical school with a focus in endocrinology.

Clarke credits her Yellowjacket teammates with making the transition a smooth one so far, though she admits that not even her taekwondo techniques could completely rid her of nerves in her debut match. “The first collegiate game was a little scary, but as soon as the ball goes up and you get into a rally you stop thinking about it and you just play,” said Clarke. “We have really good chemistry off the court, and we are just working on putting everything together on the court right now. We are all talented players, and we just need to figure out what each of our roles are on the team and how to put them together.”

For Clarke and the Yellowjackets, who are off to a solid 4-4 start to the year, the stage this weekend at Alterowitz Gym will be the biggest yet. MSUB hosts the University of Alaska on Friday night in its 2017 Great Northwest Athletic Conference opener, before a showdown against No. 18 and reigning NCAA Division II national runner up University of Alaska Anchorage on Saturday.

Though the nerves may temporarily return for Clarke in advance of Friday’s conference opener, she has the trust of her teammates and coaching staff alike on every point. “Kylee has great court awareness,” Williams said. “She is smart in her decisions and knows who to give the ball to.”

As far as the freshman setter is concerned, she is intent on getting the little things right after being bred within a sport that requires refined focused on the smallest of details. “One goal I have as an individual is to never miss a serve in a game,” Clarke commented on one of the controllable aspects of her sport. “I really focus on that before each match.”

Williams is confident that Clarke’s diverse athletic history, both mentally and physically, will contribute to a memorable career with the navy and gold. “Kylee has her best volleyball in front of her,” said Williams. “In the month we have had the opportunity to work with her, she has continually improved. I am excited about the potential that Kylee has.”

Kylee Clarke Double-Doubles (Through 8 Matches)
Date Opponent Assists Digs Sets
9/9/17 vs. Humboldt State 33 11 3
9/7/17 vs. Point Loma 38 11 3
9/1/17 vs. Minnesota State Moorhead 36 15 5
*3 Total; Gray: 2017 (Freshman, 3)

Part of the potential Williams sees in the talented freshman was generated through her work with one of her private taekwondo instructors, Mrs. Reisenauer. “She helped me a lot with creating some of my values and morals for sports,” Clarke said. “I also had really good coaches in JO with Ethan Grefsrud, and in high school with Jamie Zastoupil and Sara Bohrer. They were really good at keying into who you are and using that to help coach you.”

The color-coded plastic boards Clarke’s hand crushed through as a youth taekwondo phenom are little more than a memory now, and there is little application for a perfectly controlled jump kick within the confines of the volleyball lines. “You have to be really, really in shape,” Clarke laughed when asked if she ever had ambitions to pursue her childhood passion competitively again.

Clarke won’t be handling nunchucks anytime soon, but if her setting ability comes anywhere close to her mastery of taekwondo, then it’s a sight well worth seeing on the campus of MSUB.