Player of the year watch: Micaya White feels the heat and expands her role at No. 2 Texas
Each week during the volleyball season, we'll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.
Texas' top hitter wears a jersey numbered one.
Fittingly, Micaya White turned in a first-class performance last weekend, hammering 30 kills against two ranked opponents to propel Longhorns volleyball to a 2-0 start and a No. 2 spot in the AVCA rankings.
Texas topped No. 18 Oregon 3-1 in the VERT Challenge and downed a fourth-ranked Florida team 3-2 that had upset Nebraska the night before in Lincoln.
White finished with 17 kills, 14 digs and four blocks against the Gators, national finalists in 2017. It's not unusual for the native of Frisco, Texas, to thrive in big games. The outside hitter posted 17 kills, 11 digs and six blocks as a freshman in the Longhorns' loss to Stanford in the national championship in 2016. Last year her 354 kills led Texas.
"She's developing into a nice six-rotation player who continues to improve with her passing and serving game," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "We think she's a very good blocker who presents some matchup issues, and her offense continues to grow."
Also significant: "She's more responsive to feedback from coaches and players and reaching out to the younger players, telling them what they need to do."
White sat out the Aug. 18 Orange-White scrimmage, resting a strained abdominal muscle so she could be at her peak to start Texas' brutal nonconference slate, which includes dates with No. 8 Wisconsin (Saturday), No. 16 Kentucky (Sept. 7) and back-to-back contests versus No. 1 Stanford (Sept. 11 and 14).
Stepping on the floor for the first time as an upperclassman versus the Ducks, the Big 12 preseason player of the year realized how important it is for her to maintain a sense of calm given the youth of this Texas team. Four starters are freshmen.
The junior psychology major and aspiring FBI agent let loose dancing to Travis Scott's "Astroworld" with her teammates in pregame, setting the tone for a festive evening.
"I tried to focus on being on a good leader since I'm officially an upperclassman," said White, who finished with 13 kills and nine digs. "I know they have nerves in their first game. So I tried to show them how relaxed I was."
Following up the Oregon win by gritting out a five-setter over Florida was particularly sweet. Last August Texas' loss to the Gators proved costly when the NCAA selection committee handed out host sites for regionals, and Gregory Gym wasn't on the list. Elliott was told the loss hurt Texas' case.
"We were just trying to start off strong and not be timid because they're such a big team," White said. "We talked about going at 'em hard and not holding anything back. Yeah, they're a big team, but we can block them as well."
White is seeking consistency this season, but she's honed in on perfecting her passing, her self-identified weak spot. As a middle blocker in club, she overlooked learning a skill that she regards as among the most important parts of volleyball.
"I feel like I'm playing catch-up to the big hitters," she said.
Texas' summer trip to Italy helped that part of her game. The 6-foot-1 White came home with more than a bag full of goodies from Sephora in Milan, her favorite spot. The international experience against Italian club teams showed her a faster style of volleyball and instilled confidence in her serve-receive.
"I'm making better decisions now," she said.
White is eager to make up for a disappointing end to the 2017 season. Texas fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Stanford, ending its streak of four straight appearances in the final four.
"Being at Texas you always have the tradition of going to the final four and winning the Big 12," she said. "When you don't accomplish those goals, it puts a fire under your butt."
Next up, a trip to Madison, Wisconsin, where an additional 1,040 seats have been added to UW Field House, raising capacity to more than 7,000. Saturday's game is expected to be a sellout.
"I haven't played Wisconsin since my redshirt freshman year and we lost to them," White said of the 2016 five-setter. "I'm excited to go to their home court and put up some good fight and hopefully come out of the weekend still undefeated."