Local grads LaForge, Griffel move up after helping JCCC to volleyball national title

Cody Thorn
Special to The Examiner
Johnson County Community College outside hitter Gracie LaForge (11) prepares to hit a spike in a match this season. LaForge, a Grain Valley High School graduate, earned NJCAA All-America first-team honors while helping JCCC to the junior college national title. She has signed with Rockhurst University to continue her college volleyball career.

After helping Johnson County Community College capture the NJCAA volleyball national championship earlier this spring, Gracie LaForge and Makenzie Griffel are ready to start their next chapter. 

LaForge, a Grain Valley High School graduate, and Griffel, a Blue Springs South grad, have earned spots on NCAA Division II college rosters after helping lead the Cavaliers to the junior college title along with Blue Springs South grad Ryleigh McBurney and Grain Valley grad Jessic Slater. The pair served as captains for Johnson County this season. 

Griffel signed with Pittsburg State, while LaForge will stay closer to home, choosing Rockhurst University

Blue Springs South graduate Makenzie Griffel has signed with Pittsburg State after helping lead Johnson County Community College to the NJCAA national title.

LaForge was named a first-team All-American on both the NJCAA and AVCA squads and last week was the recipient of the Lea Plarski Award, given to the NJCAA student-athlete who exemplifies sportsmanship, leadership, community service, academic excellence and athletic ability. 

LaForge said she picked Rockhurst over Pittsburg State for academic reasons – the desire to go into occupational therapy after her playing days are over. The occupational therapy major earned a 3.83 cumulative grade point average at Johnson County. 

Rockhurst coach Trent Jones came to watch JCCC practice and offered LaForge, giving her a peace of mind where she was going before the postseason run. 

“Gracie is another captain and an enormous part of our success from her leadership skills to her termination skills,” JCCC coach Jennifer Ei said. “She is ultra-competitive, supportive, strong, and willing to do anything to benefit the team. She is heading to Rockhurst University on scholarship and I expect she will impact their program like she did ours.”

Gracie LaForge and Makenzie Griffel dominated at JCCC last season

Griffel was in the top 10 in digs this season at the national level and left JCCC ranked in the top 15 all-time in digs. 

At one point she wasn’t sure she would play volleyball in college because of burnout, but a call from her club coach at Summit Volleyball Club to Ei led to Griffel landing at JCCC. 

“I ended up loving it,” Griffel said of joining JCCC. “It was the best decision I could’ve ever made.” 

She joins a Pittsburg State roster that features Kyla Neigenfind, who played with her at JCCC her freshman year. Griffel said she was planning to come back to JCCC for another semester and use her extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19 to garner more interest in recruiting but things worked out with Pittsburg State. 

She had a tryout with Pitt State last fall, but at the time the roster was full. Things changed and when a spot opened, Gorillas coach Jen Gomez called her. 

“Makenzie Griffel has been a big part of our success for many reasons,” Ei said of Griffel. “She is one of our captains this past season. She is an extremely hard worker and has a positive and encouraging attitude. She was our starting libero who is on the court most of the match and started our team out with great ball control. She is going to be a huge asset at Pitt State and they will be thrilled to have her as a part of their team.” 

At the NJCAA national championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the Cavaliers defeated Parkland (Illinois) College 3-1 to claim the title. In the finals, Griffel had 13 digs, while LaForge tallied nine kills and seven blocks. Griffel’s high school teammate, McBurney, had 20 assists. Slater didn’t play in the finals but had a kill in a win over No. 1-ranked Illinois Central College in the semifinals. 

The closest victory for the Cavaliers was a 3-2 win over Kirkwood (Iowa) Community College, which led 14-10 in the deciding fifth set. The Cavaliers rallied and won 19-17. 

Johnson County finished 27-2 this year, claiming a conference and district title along the way. 

“Winning the fifth set was the turning point in the tournament,” Griffel said. “As soon as we came back, we swept the No. 1 team in the semifinals and the finals we won 3-1. It was just a crazy experience. It was awesome.” 

Last July – just a month before practice was officially set to start – the NJCAA moved most of the fall sports to the spring in precaution of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scrimmages between schools were also nixed, meaning teams had plenty of time to practice. When the season did resume this spring, JCCC was one of few schools that still wore masks during competition. 

“We were all ready to get on the court and play,” LaForge said. “We had been together practicing for so long without any competition it was definitely good. We were connecting well and when we got there (Cedar Rapids) we said we have to win it and then we almost lost. But we came back and fought.” 

Ryleigh McBurney

LaForge, Griffel and McBurney all picked up postseason honors this spring. 

LaForge joined teammate Mikayla Powell (Raymore-Peculiar) on the 12-player NJCAA Division II All-American first-team. LaForge was also a second-team on the AVCA All-American team. 

LaForge was second in the conference and 17th in NJCAA with a .359 kill percentage and had 280 kills, 18th best in the country. She tallied 37 kills during the national tournament. 

Jessica Slater

She was also named to the all-conference and All-Region VI first team. Griffel was a second-team all-conference pick and first-team all-region selection. McBurney was honorable mention all-conference and second-team all-region, recording double figures in assists in 28 of 29 games. 

“We have been so fortunate to have all of these amazing people and players from the Blue Springs and Grain Valley area,” Ei said. “All of these players earned academic honors both semesters this past year (too).” 

McBurney will be joined on Johnson County’s roster by incoming freshmen from Eastern Jackson County in Kylie Gregory (Blue Springs South) and Paige Huhman (Lee’s Summit North). 

Slater is done playing and turning her focus to coaching, while McBurney will return for a second year at JCCC.