Once timid and now intrepid, Minnesota's Sarah Wilhite named espnW volleyball player of the year

Sarah Wilhite led Minnesota in kills this season and became a steadying six-rotation presence for the second-seeded Gophers. Eric Miller/University of Minnesota

She arrived at Minnesota in coach Hugh McCutcheon's first recruiting class, engaging and talented but unsure where she fit in. It took senior outside hitter Sarah Wilhite three seasons to establish herself with the Gophers. Once she did, McCutcheon asked for even more.

And Wilhite delivered. Stepping into the leadership role vacated by Daly Santana, who graduated, Wilhite turned into a six-rotation star who succeeded Santana as Big Ten player of the year. A unanimous choice for all-Big Ten, Wilhite averaged 4.20 kills per set with a career-best .293 hitting percentage. Whenever the Gophers needed a big swing, or a block, or a dig, Wilhite gave it to them.

"My freshman year I was pretty timid," Wilhite said. "I had a lot of fear behind competition. I'm not sure where that came from. Each year, I've grown as a more confident player and had a lot more trust in myself. I believe in myself first and that allows others to believe in me. That was the biggest difference, really. Being able to play free now is something I never felt my freshman year."

That's why Wilhite is the espnW national volleyball player of the year.

On a team with five excellent hitters and strong balance, Wilhite's all-around excellence lifted the 29-4 Gophers to their second consecutive final four appearance. When Wilhite is rolling, setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson follows a simple stage direction.

"Feeding the beast is what [assistant coach] Matt Houk always tells me to do," Seliger-Swenson said. "I think that's just the player Sarah is for this team. I can go to her, when she gets five kills in a row I'm going to continue to keep going to her because I know that she's so confident and she's grown as a player that she can put the ball away."

McCutcheon knew Wilhite had the ability, even if few outside the Gophers' program noticed. A two-time academic all-Big Ten choice, until this year Wilhite never made an all-conference or all-region team, even as an honorable mention.

But last season, as the Gophers advanced to their first final four since 2009, McCutcheon recognized Wilhite's value all over. For the Gophers to win this season, Wilhite needed to lead, like Santana had. McCutcheon used to sub out Wilhite on the back row for better defensive players, but this season McCutcheon needed her to do everything.

"The challenge for her was to be the six-rotation outside for us," said McCutcheon, the former U.S. men's and women's Olympic coach. "No one really understands the weight of that responsibility until you do it, because it's a lot. You don't get any plays off.

"It was clear last year that when she was good, we were really good, and when she struggled, we tended to struggle. Obviously there were a lot of players that were very successful around her. But her ability to influence the match was real then. We talked about, going forward, whether you like it or not, this falls on your shoulders now. She rose to that challenge."

Wilhite expanded her hitting game, adding a cross-body shot last spring, and shored up her digging and serving. She averages 4.70 points per set for the Gophers, who have five players with at least 200 kills -- Wilhite, freshman Alexis Hart, seniors Hannah and Paige Tapp and junior Molly Lohman. Wilhite also ranks second on the team with 29 service aces and 314 digs.

"She's not a one-trick pony," said friend and housemate Hannah Tapp. "She can do a lot of different things. And she can do them consistently."

Wilhite's teammates feed off that. Minnesota closed the Big Ten regular season with four consecutive five-set victories against ranked teams, ending with No. 1 Nebraska and No. 3 Wisconsin. Wilhite excelled in all of them.

Against the Cornhuskers Nov. 23, Wilhite contributed 19 kills and a career-high 25 digs as the Gophers came from two sets down to win. Three days later, Wilhite's five consecutive kills in the decisive fifth set, among 23 for the night, sparked the Gophers past the Badgers.

"She's always been a very talented volleyball player, but her volleyball IQ has increased immensely," said Tapp, a teammate of Wilhite's for two seasons with Northern Lights, a leading AAU club in Minnesota.

"She knows a lot of things that other players don't know at different times in the match. She knows when to hit a smart shot versus when to hit a hard shot. It goes unrecognized, but I think she's the best pin blocker in the nation. And she's really good at reading and making good blocking moves."

"I believe in myself first and that allows others to believe in me." Sarah Wilhite

McCutcheon particularly appreciates Wilhite's defense.

"If you watch her, she's very quiet back there," he said. "She's not moving around a whole lot. She gets in a good spot early, gets a good look at the hitter, and then makes her move at the ball. That's exactly what we would expect from a senior. You watch some of our younger athletes back there, and they're running around a lot without really being sure where they're going. But she's good in that regard.

"She's a very complete player. Not only can she dig, she can block, she passes, and of course she can hit."

And in tense moments, Wilhite isn't shy about telling teammates to step it up. "Sarah is someone who will look at me and say, 'Hey, we need you right now,' if I'm wavering in some aspect," Seliger-Swenson said.

This season, Wilhite never wavered at all. She credits much of it to McCutcheon's trust and guidance.

"He stuck with me through my kind of tough four years, through my evolution to where I am now," she said. "He made an effort to tell me I'm a stud, and I can work hard, and reach a potential that I'm not even sure I can reach. He told me to shoot for the stars and dream big. Things like that. It's definitely special to have a coach who cares about volleyball a lot, but also cares about how it's going to change me as a person too."