“She’s a pretty confident young women and she’s seen a lot and played a lot of volleyball. She’s been through all the ups and downs from being the conference freshman of the year to struggling her sophomore year to having a great junior year to getting injured. If you’re going to write a story or do a movie, her story as an outside hitter at BYU is just remarkable.”
— BYU coach Heather Olmstead on senior McKenna Miller
No one in the NCAA volleyball tournament deserves this more.
Sports can be so cruel. And the volleyball gods were so cruel to McKenna Miller on November 8, 2018, the day after BYU coach Heather Olmstead’s birthday.
BYU was on the way to sweeping visiting Santa Clara, a victory that would leave the top-ranked Cougars 24-0. Miller had six kills, was hitting .333 that day, and had two digs and two blocks.
And then she went up, attacked, and came down in a heap.
“Immediately I knew it was bad and immediately my heart sank for McKenna because she was in pain,” Olmstead recalled.
BYU libero Mary Lake knew, too.
“I couldn’t watch,” said Lake, who tore her own ACL in high school and then had a meniscus tear right before her freshman year at BYU. “She’s my best friend and watching her in pain was hard and also re-living that was hard. I knew she tore her ACL.”
“I assumed,” she said. “It felt like Jell-O. My leg was gone.”
And this wasn’t just any player getting hurt on any team. This was an All-American outside hitter on the top-ranked team in the country. She had a complete tear of the ACL and a partial tear of the MCL.
Indeed, life changed in a hurry for the 6-foot-1 Miller, who could only watch the rest of the way as BYU lost twice — once to LMU in West Coast Conference play and then in the NCAA national semifinals to Stanford.
Stanford’s only other defeat last season? To BYU.
Would BYU have won the national title with her? We’ll never know, but …
One way to look at it is that it helped this year’s team, one that heads into Friday’s NCAA Tournament first-round match with WAC-champion NM State.
BYU (25-4) is seeded No. 14 and the winner gets the winner of Friday’s match between the Pac-12’s Utah and Illinois of the Big Ten.
When Miller, a senior from Murrieta, California, got hurt, Olmstead quickly went to freshman Maddie Robinson, who filled in admirably and along with another All-American, since-graduated Roni Jones-Perry, BYU had the offense it needed down the stretch.
Robinson, a 5-10 sophomore from Highland, Utah, has been the second outside hitter this year and together she and Miller make for quite a strong pair of left sides.
Miller has 377 kills (3.59/set), is hitting .296, leads with 40 aces, averages just less than a dig per set and has 55 blocks. Robinson has 273 kills (2.58/set), has 163 digs (1.54/set) and 43 blocks.
This year it’s fun for Miller to watch Robinson. Last year it was painful.
Miller, to her credit, was a good cheerleader. Her teammates praised her for her attitude down the stretch and during the NCAA Tournament.
She’d never been hurt before, save a sprained ankle. So, sure, sometimes she’d get down, but Lake, for one, was having none of it.
“I knew she would come back because I came back and I forget that I tore my ACL,” Lake said.
Miller appreciated the messages and support.
Lake told her, “Mac, you’ll be fine. I know the emotions you’re going through and they suck, but there will come a time when you forget about your knee injury and it doesn’t affect you any more.”
“In front of the team I tried my best to have this attitude of ‘I’m happy, I’m OK, I’m here for the team,’ but it was really hard at the NCAA Tournament,” the 21-year-old Miller admitted. “So it was really reassuring that one, Mary had come back from it, and two, that she was accepting of the emotions I went through. So I never felt embarrassed or ashamed when I got frustrated or anything.”
“Alex dealt with a lot of breakdowns.”
Alex is Alex Ah Sue, who not only plays men’s volleyball at BYU, but is Miller’s husband. At the time of the injury, they were engaged with a wedding set for last May.
“I got to see a little different side of it when she wasn’t at school or with the media, because she always had to put on a smile for everybody,” Ah Sue said. “She’s just that type of person.”
McKenna is beyond appreciative of the support Alex gave.
“We dated over a year and a half. Honestly, I get a lot of questions about being married young,” said Miller, whose birthday is October 5. “But I think it was really good for me to have that during that time. I got engaged literally the week before (the injury). I got engaged October 28.”
“It was nice to have something to look forward to and having Alex’s support through that was awesome.”
Her teammates were so impressed, especially when the season ended.
“She was always positive,” sophomore middle Heather Gneiting said. “I never heard her complain. She was always like, ‘I can do this, I can do this, I’m going to get better, I’m going to be even stronger.’ It was really cool to see that and I think she’s even better than she was.”
That’s the prevailing thought.
“McKenna was a beast in rehab,’ Olmstead said. “We chatted very soon after she tore her ACL and she told me she did not want to redshirt and that she was coming back and playing this year.”
Olmstead looked at her and said, “Whoa, McKenna, we don’t have to make that decision now. Let’s just go through this process and see what’s going on.”
Miller was having none of it.
“She told me, ‘I’m playing next year.’ And her rehab and mindset reflected that.”
All through the winter and spring she went through grueling rehab.
“Boredom,” she said with a straight face. “Honestly, I was sick of just sitting there and not getting to play. Like fear of missing out. I was tired of doing leg lifts on the side. And I love volleyball.”
“There is that.”
When BYU played Weber State in a spring match on April 10, she served and then stepped off the court, which was a big boost to her and the team. By the end of April, Miller was hitting tossed balls.
And so by the time she got married in May, walking down the aisle was a piece of cake. Roni Jones-Perry, by the way, was one of the bridesmaids. McKenna and Alex honeymooned in Cancun.
Last summer Miller was in Provo, which proved to be quite fortuitous to the team. As Olmstead noted, Miller was there for the incoming freshmen, because Lake was with the national team while it was qualifying for the 2020 Olympics and middles Gneiting and Kennedy Eschenberg were with USA teams.
“She helped build a bond with those freshmen, she took that on like a champ, invited them over for dinner, movie nights and really took it upon herself to make relationships with these younger kids,” Olmstead said. “It was really impressive.”
Miller understands what volleyball friendships mean. She and Lake started playing together when they were 13 and have been best friends ever since.
“It’s one of the most unique, special relationships I’ve ever seen as a coach,” Olmstead said. “They came in together in 2016 and their relationship with each other, their ability to connect with each other on the court, I’ve never seen it before. It’s just really special and they’ll be able to have that bond the rest of their lives. They’re leading this team and it’s really cool.”
That’s not lost on Miller.
“Mary and I just kind of get each other. We look at each other and know exactly what’s going on with volleyball and life,” Miller said.
Miller, like a lot of volleyball players, is even more impressive in person than on TV.
She has remarkable mobility, Olmstead says she touches 10-3, and she flat out can unload on a volleyball. She hits angle cross-court as well as anyone in the college game.
“I went out on a sharp cross,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always joked that I’m a sharp-cross gal. And Jonny (assistant coach Neeley) is like, ‘No, we need to be a tool-box gal.’ And he’d make me hit line.”
That power surprised Lake at first.
“She is so good. She has a cannon. The funny thing is when she was young, she hit puberty really late and she was really small,” Lake said with a laugh.
“We were kind of like, ‘Oh, she committed.’ And in the next four months after she committed she grew like six inches and got an arm.”
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” Miller admitted.
For that matter, Miller’s only other offer coming out of Murrieta Valley High School was by UC Irvine.
“I was 5-6 and barely a hundred pounds my freshman year of high school,” she said.
“I can show you pictures. I had giant feet and hands, but …”
“And then gradually I just grew. Honestly I didn’t want to come to BYU. I grew up in California, I didn’t want to live in Utah, and BYU was the weird Mormon-y school — even though I am LDS (Latter Day Saints) — I was a California LDS.”
Miller laughed again.
“My mom convinced me to put it on my list.
“So I came to camp.”
But she still wasn’t sold and wasn’t sure she was even good enough, because that was the year BYU made it to the 2014 NCAA title match before losing to Penn State.
“But I came back to camp here after my sophomore year and I was like this is where I need to be. I didn’t even really understand it, I was 14 or 15, but I’m glad because they offered me at that camp and I accepted.
“And now that I’m here I could not imagine being anywhere else.”
Miller agrees that she’s a better player now than ever and perhaps some of that is a by-product of being injured.
“When I was rehabbing and coming back, I had to do like little aspects of volleyball, bit by bit, until I was ready to do everything. I started with hitting on a box and Jonny would toss me balls. And then I got to where he would toss balls and I’d take little approaches, but I obviously wasn’t jumping as high, so I’d have to learn to contact and swing through the ball higher. I think that helped when I started to jump my normal height again that I felt more comfortable hitting different shots and I feel more comfortable swinging high.”
No matter how she swings, Miller gets kills. In BYU’s last match, for example, she led with 18 in a five-set win over Pepperdine, hit .371, had an ace, eight digs and two blocks.
“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish,” she said, and smiled. “You can ask Alex this, when we first started dating, there were the get-to-know-you questions. And I asked him what was your biggest fear and he gave like a legit, good answer, like not being able to provide for his family.
“And he asked me.”
“Honestly, probably tearing my ACL,” she told him.
She laughed at herself.
“Seriously, having the support of my teammates was so great. And the resources,” Miller said. “I always say that tearing your ACL is not ideal but BYU is a pretty good place to do it.”
And that’s why no one — no one — deserves to play in this NCAA Tournament more than McKenna Miller.
“It’s really cool to see,” Olmstead said. “I’m really happy for her.”