Rachel Mohler owns a soft smile, bright eyes and an easy laugh. She could pass for a kindergarten teacher, a model, or the girl next door.
But bounce a volleyball nearby, and Miss Jekyll quickly becomes Ms. Hyde. When there is a point to contest, this is a wolf in sheep's knee pads.
"We joke sometimes about dominating the court, about going out and making sure you hit someone on the other side in the face," said Mohler, the only senior on the University of Toledo team.
"That is an aggressive kind of play, but that's definitely me, and that's OK. In football you get to tackle people, but in volleyball we don't get to touch the other team, so you use the ball as much as you can."
Mohler, a 6-foot senior, is an animated and emotional leader for the Rockets who relishes her role as one of the top combatants along the net. In volleyball, there is no innocuous term like "winner" or "advantage" when you leap above the net and put the ball away.
That is called a "kill," and Mohler likes it that way.
"When you think about it, volleyball is kind of a contradiction. The purpose is not to volley the ball, it is to kill the ball - to hit it so hard that your opponent can't return it," Mohler said. "You want to terminate the play, to end it. There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing that you finished the point. It just makes sense to call it a kill."
Mohler, a graduate of Anthony Wayne High School, leads the Rockets with 171 kills. She wants each cannon shot she sends over the net to give her team a lift, and to demoralize the opposition.
"Getting a kill can boost a team in a huge way," Mohler said. "If you are down it can bring a team back very quickly, and when you get a kill has a lot to do with the momentum swings during a game. Volleyball is a very aggressive, attacking kind of sport, and I like knowing I can help my team by making a very aggressive play like that."
Mohler participated in just about every athletic endeavor while growing up, but volleyball became her main sport after her freshman year in high school. She was an accomplished high jumper in track, but her focus kept coming back to the 60-foot box where she makes no effort to mute her emotions.
"Rachel is a very enthusiastic and vocal player, and it is really hard to measure just how important that aspect is in a team sport like volleyball," UT coach Kent Miller said. "Rachel does a tremendous job with her leadership and her emotion, and being that key component of our team."
Mohler's intensity and competitive fire helped the Rockets get off to a 10-0 start, the best in school history, but it has also contributed to a number of injuries that have hampered her career, including a pair of concussions last season - both the result of collisions with teammates.
"Because she is such an enthusiastic player, and she does not stop, she crashes into things now and then," Miller said. "But it gives a lift to the team to watch her effort level every day.
"If you watch Rachel after she has a big swing for a kill, and you watch her excitement when she turns to her teammates, then you get it. She just wants the team to be as successful as possible, and to feed off of her energy and enthusiasm."
Mohler is a special education major who plans to pursue her masters and doctorate once her volleyball career is over. But before that she intends to make the most of her final season at UT.
"The gym is still my favorite place to be, and I'd rather be here than outside or on the beach," Mohler said. "The volleyball court is home for me. My mom, my grandma, and my aunt all played. It is just a part of me."
Mohler has played a big role for the Rockets since her freshman season, and was the team leader in kills last year. Miller said the Rockets will go as far as Mohler can take them. Toledo is 10-3 and hosts Central Michigan tonight.
"Rachel has had a great career, but she is really looking for a great finish - not only for herself, but for the team," Miller said. "Our conference is very, very tough this year, and we have to be prepared for some tough battles. Whatever we can accomplish will come through hard work, and I think Rachel will be our leader in that."
Mohler was the MVP when the Rockets won a tournament they hosted at Savage Hall this season, and had a career-high 22 kills in a win over Central Michigan a year ago.
"I take a lot of ownership in this team," Mohler said. "It's going on four years now of putting everything I've got out on the court here. Everybody else on this team will have another chance, but for me, this is it. I want to give it everything I have, and be as emotional and vocal as always. That's just me - I'm a loud, outgoing person, and that's the way I play volleyball."
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