Player of the Year watch: USC's Khalia Lanier hitting and knitting her way to Stanford showdown
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.
Khalia Lanier shares a vivid and somewhat giddy memory of riding in the car with her dad. She was 8 years old at the time, and her 7-year-old pal was struggling to give directions back to her home after a playdate. For Lanier, it was agony. She wanted to scream because the account was so slow and mistake-ridden. If Lanier was born with patience, it hit the road by the time she buckled up.
Now a junior at USC, Lanier recalls another car ride. This time she was behind the wheel, taking her besties, Raegan LeGrand and Daley Krage, to chicken dinner at Raising Cane's. And the unthinkable happened.
"One of them didn't tell me the exit soon enough," Lanier said. "I remember freaking out."
She's slowly learning to laugh at herself and repeat this word: patience. Perfection, she has realized, isn't attainable, even with her résumé, one of the most decorated in collegiate volleyball.
Lanier, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2016, has amassed 1,000 kills just two seasons into her career with the Trojans. The first-team All-American inherited the athletic genes of her father, NBA Hall of Famer Bob Lanier, along with the drive to improve with every drill at every practice, picking apart her own game to correct even the smallest imperfection.
But a difficult semester last spring made her reassess. Struggling with her recovery from a herniated disc in her back, she realized how stressful school and sports had become. She also concluded that she wasn't put on earth solely to play volleyball, no matter how big a role it plays in her life.
When a family friend asked what she did that was completely hers, something she did just for herself, Lanier went blank.
Self-criticism came more easily than self-care.
"So I learned how to knit," she said. "Whenever I'm feeling stressed, I knit my little heart out."
Her original plan was to knit gifts for friends, but the questions inside her head began to mount. What color? What size? What pattern? Catching herself, she decided she would knit for no one but herself.
"Now I've knitted this piece of gray yarn for three months," she said, laughing. "I'm not giving it to anyone."
Knitting, along with drawing and writing in a journal, have led to another goal: mindfulness, something Lanier works toward every day in an effort to make her a better and happier student and player. This comes at a time when she is navigating transition as a Trojan.
She's adjusting to working alongside freshman setter Raquel Lazaro from Cordoba, Spain. They've connected off the court, made easier by Lanier's taking Spanish. "I make a point of having a conversation with her in Spanish every day," she said.
Their hitter-setter chemistry is developing under new coach Brent Crouch, whose complicated offensive system is still a work in progress for the 13th-ranked Trojans and is among the reasons Lanier is not hitting as efficiently as she'd like.
Her 203 kills rank third in the Pac-12, and her 4.06 kills per set rank fourth in the conference. On Sunday, her game-high 21 kills lifted USC past Colorado in five.
"Khalia's a really fast learner. I don't know if she's aware of how fast she learns," Crouch said. "She's a cerebral player, and the positive side of that is she wants to know the reasons why we're doing the things we're doing. I love that kind of player. She's always asking questions."
Lanier said she no longer drowns in her own statistics. "Regardless of how many kills and digs I had, now it's more about, 'Did I get better? Was I mentally stronger tonight for some reason?'" she said. "I challenge myself in different ways that are healthy instead of saying, 'My world is ending because I didn't get 20 kills tonight.'"
With second-ranked Stanford (11-1) on tap for Friday (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET), it would be easy for Lanier to work herself into a tizzy. USC (10-3) has won five straight. Both teams are perfect so far in Pac-12 play. But Lanier has realized that getting overexcited doesn't make her play better.
"Hopefully I can go in there like it's any other game," she said. "Do my best, and see where it goes."