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Best least-known player? Rya McKinnon off to strong start again for Howard

Rya McKinnon attacks against George Mason/Rodney Pierce photo

In the days after he watched Rya McKinnon tally a program-record 30 kills in a five-set win over George Mason, Howard coach Shaun Kupferberg had a simple message for his sophomore outside hitter.

Kupferberg did not want McKinnon to ever do that again.

Make no mistake, Kupferberg wasn’t being critical of his sophomore outside hitter.  He was impressed by the eye-opening number as much as anyone. But the circumstances under which McKinnon accumulated that total were not ideal.

The Bison (3-3) have been beset by injuries in the early going, so depth already was an issue, and Kupferberg was using a makeshift starting lineup. Eventually, Kupferberg said, he was out of subs. In fact, Howard played a point in the fifth set with only five players on the court.

All of that conspired to have the Bison lean on the 2022 MEAC freshman and player of the year a little more than they would have liked.

“Honestly, we don’t want her getting 30 kills,” said Kupferberg, in his 11th season at the historically Black school and coming off a 20-10 effort in 2022. “I said, ‘I hope you never break that record because we should never be setting you that much.’ ”

Be that as it might, the performance illustrated just how dominant McKinnon can be and how she has the ability to carry a team. The the product of Hoover, Alabama, had to do a lot of the heavy lifting during Howard’s first three matches, taking 164 swings and piling up 71 kills — while hitting .300 — as the Bison went 2-1.

In the match before her 30-kill effort against George Mason, she had 27 kills (.371) in a five-set victory over George Washington. Howard opened the season with a three-set loss to Georgetown, and, perhaps not coincidentally, McKinnon struggled in that match, getting “only” 14 kills on .143 hitting.

Still, 71 kills in three matches? That’s heady stuff at any level.

Rya McKinnon

“It was very fun and a very rewarding feeling,” McKinnon said, “just knowing that I had to sit out the previous (season’s early matches because of injury). It felt good just to be back on the court and be able to get those kills.”

McKinnon would be in the discussion of the best least-known player in the country, and her background makes her a bit of an underdog as well.

McKinnon even started out in another sport: gymnastics. But she decided she was “way too tall” for gymnastics, so she took the road less traveled and gave volleyball a try.

“Which is kind of odd,” McKinnon said about her height being a drawback in gymnastics, “because I’m short for volleyball now.”

She is listed at 5-foot-11 on the Howard roster, but McKinnon admitted she is closer to 5-9.

Besides her relative lack of height, she played on smaller club teams and didn’t have the advantage of facing tougher national competition as players at bigger, more prestigious clubs might.

So how did McKinnon develop into a player who has taken the MEAC by storm and seems on the verge of becoming a national presence? She was the first MEAC volleyball player to be named Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in the same season since MEAC Hall of Famer Jana Milin of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2002.

For starters, she is the daughter of a former NFL player. Her father, Ronald McKinnon, spent 10 years in the NFL — nine with the Arizona Cardinals — and put together a nice career, amassing 1,000-plus, 10 interceptions and 12 sacks from his linebacker spot.

Rya said her father, an assistant football coach at Division II Miles College, often shows her his old football films.

“I feel like there’s always a competitive aspect,” she said. “I want to be better than my father. He always pushes me, always motivates me to always just get the extra reps and always work harder than other people.”

McKinnon also has freakish athleticism on her side. Despite her height, she can touch a basketball rim. Kupferberg said she reaches 10-2.

“I feel like that’s really helped me with hitting and playing against people taller than me,” McKinnon said. “And I’m just an aggressive player. I want to win, I want to get kills, I want to slam the ball down.”

Which leads to the other — and perhaps most important — factor in her success. McKinnon is self-motivated. Kupferberg said athletes like her make his job a lot easier.

“From the day she came in the gym, she was a born competitor,” he said. “She’s the type of athlete that every coach wants. She’s just a straight athlete from the mental standpoint and physical standpoint.

“She’s doing it the right way … She’s always looking for something to get better at. She’s not focused on stats. I don’t even know if she looks at that stuff.”

As talented and cerebral as McKinnon was, Kupferberg knew she was far from a finished product.

Her hitting ability was never much in doubt. Whereas many young hitters need to expand their shot repertoire because they no longer can rely on raw power, McKinnon had developed some other swings even before arriving at Howard.

The trick, Kupferberg said, was getting her to hit those shots with more consistency, something she has been able to do in her first year-plus with the Bison.

She also needed to become more proficient at passing. That, too, has come a long way, with Kupferberg calling her a “rock-solid serve receiver.”

Perhaps the part of her game that has taken off the most is her blocking ability. That was never more evident than in the win over George Mason. Though that forever will be remembered as the match in which McKinnon put down 30 kills, she also had six blocks, nearly half of her total from all of 2022 (15).

She even got a block assist on the match-clinching point.

“It’s something we worked on all spring,” Kupferberg said. “We know she’s going to put up kills, but her blocking was something she really worked hard on all spring.

“She’s definitely high enough. It’s just a matter of where she’s blocking, and I think she’s doing a much better job of that this year.”

One final area of mystery that remained coming into the season was how McKinnon would fare against bigger schools. She did hit .400 in an exhibition match against professionals from Athletes Unlimited, but she still is largely untested against Power 5 schools.

As she battled injuries during the early part of her freshman season, she was limited to mostly back row duties in matches against Penn State and Tulane, getting only two combined attacks in those matches – both against Penn State. And she missed the Bison’s match with Washington State.

This season, she finally got that chance.

Thursday, she had 11 kills in a 3-1 loss (20-25, 27-25, 16-25, 19-25) to NC State. She had a match-high 18 kills in a reverse sweep of Winthrop on Friday. But she was held to nine kills  and hit just .029 as the Bison were swept by Rutgers on Saturday.

In 25 sets this season, McKinnon has 109 kills (4.36/set), 55 more than her next closest teammate. She’s second on the team in digs at 2.96/set and has 11 blocks, two solo.

Howard plays three matches in three days this weekend, against against the ACC’s Virginia, last year’s America East champion in UMBC, and the Big Ten’s Maryland. The Bison finish the pre-conference season against the ACC’s Georgia Tech, SEC’s Georgia, and D.C. rival American of the Patriot League.

Accordingly, with the schedule ramping up, McKinnon should have plenty of time to work on her point of emphasis, setting aside frustrations and focus on getting better the next match. That was an area, Kupferberg said, he was very intentional about helping her sort out.

“She’s so used to being physically dominant, that when she is stuck a little bit, she gets a little frustrated,” he said, noting that, in practices, he would purposely try to make her attacks difficult. “She got stifled in the first set against Georgetown (this year). She was trying too hard, I think, and did some things she doesn’t normally do in practice.

“But she bounced right back in the second game. She hit negative in the first game but then she bounced back and hit positive and hit over .600 the rest of the way.”

There is one frustration McKinnon and the Bison didn’t get over so easily: missing out on the 2022 MEAC title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. In the previous seven seasons, Howard had been the conference champion and an NCAA participant six times.

Those are two wrongs McKinnon is eager to see corrected.

“We have a very talented team, a very stacked team,” she said. “Last year, we weren’t really happy with how we played, and I think that’s going to give us a lot of fire under us.

“That (missing the NCAA) kind of affected us all really hard. I think coming in this summer, we really kind of set new standards for our team and new goals. Our expectations are a lot different. We’re training a lot differently now because we want to go back and win the MEAC and be able to be in the tournament.”

That “stacked team” McKinnon spoke about includes a number of players she said she is excited to watch throughout the season:

— Senior right side hitter Jennifer Bolden, who has battled injuries throughout her time at Howard but is starting to return to health, as evidenced by 12 kills vs. Winthrop

— Sophomore libero Claire Simpson, who had almost as many digs — 69 — as McKinnon had kills over the first three matches

— Setter Kayla Diaz, the returning MEAC co-Setter of the Year, who, thanks in no small part to McKinnon, had 154 assists in the Bison’s first three matches

— And junior outside Dami Awojobi, who led Howard with 22 kills against Georgetown

“I think this year our strength is we just work really well together,” McKinnon said. “We get along, so that really does translate on the court with how we work together and how we score points.”

By winning another MEAC title and getting back to the NCAA Tournament, McKinnon hopes the Bison also can shed some light on the volleyball talent that exists at HBCU schools. It is a segment of the volleyball world, she believes, gets overlooked despite having “a lot of very physical people who can jump out of the gym.”

McKinnon, certainly is one. And she thinks she, too, might be a bit overlooked.

Kupferberg thinks that will change some day in the not-so-distant future.

“I think she can be dominant right now,” he said. “I don’t think she needs to be 2 or 3 inches taller. She can play as good as any top-10 outside hitter in the country right now. I know it sounds a little crazy coming from a little HBCU, but we’ll see in the next couple of weeks as we play some Power 5s and that type of stuff.

“I think she can play on the national team. I don’t see a reason why she can’t. She just needs to find herself and make sure she understands what her strengths and weaknesses are and just keep growing in those, and I think she’s doing that.”

He just doesn’t want her to demonstrate by having to kill 30 balls in a match.

Howard libero Claire Simpson watches Rya McKinnon pass/Rodney Pierce photo