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Kayla Caffey revs up her pro volleyball career with Athletes Unlimited

Kayla Caffey attacks against Baylor during the 2022 Texas season/Texas photo

With an infectious laugh and flashing a broad smile, Kayla Caffey admitted she was “embarrassed” that her collegiate career spanned seven years “because I played for soooo long.”

But its culmination as an NCAA champion with the Texas Longhorns allowed Caffey to, as she said, “retire in peace, everyone. Goodbye!”

Her retirement didn’t last long.

Bringing a sunny personality that lights up a room and fast-twitch athleticism that illuminates the court, Caffey’s latest career move is as a member of the 44-player roster for Athletes Unlimited’s third season that will start on Friday, Saturday and Monday in Mesa, Arizona. Matches can be seend on the ESPN+ streaming platform and the ESPNU cable TV channel.

The transitions made by Caffey during her seven-year college marathon at Missouri, Nebraska and Texas figure to pay dividends in the professional Athletes Unlimited — best described as an individual competition in a team-sports setting — in which captains pick new teams in each of the season’s five weeks.

The draft by first-week captains Bethania De La Cruz, Natalia Valentin-Anderson, Nootsara Tomkom, and Leah Edmond is scheduled for Tuesday.

“Every week, you’ll be on a new team and I’ve been on many different teams, as have many of the other girls,” Caffey said. “Since I had so much time in college, I didn’t get that professional experience that they have under their belts, even though I could have been playing pro for the last three years, since college is only supposed to be four years and I played seven. So, yes, my experience in transferring twice definitely will help me.”

Kayla Caffey during Athletes Unlimited media day/Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited

Caffey gained plenty of big-match repetitions as a collegian, playing in NCAA tournaments with Missouri and Nebraska before being a contributor to Texas’ NCAA title last winter. A 6-foot middle blocker with high hops, Caffey was a second-team AVCA All-American in 2021 when the Huskers lost in five sets to Wisconsin in the NCAA final watched by a record 1.18 million TV viewers.

Each step the product of Mother McAuley in Chicago took through the transfer portal brought positives. Her seven seasons included a redshirt in 2016 as a freshman at Missouri, a medical-redshirt year lost to injury with the Tigers of the Southeastern Conference in 2018 and additional eligibility granted by the NCAA because of COVID.

“I transferred to Nebraska during COVID and it was a crazy time,” Caffey, 25, said. “I never even visited the campus. We just did it all on Zoom. But I’m really glad that I made the switch from Missouri, because Mizzou had given me all that it had to offer, and I needed to take that next step in order to become a better player. Big Ten volleyball is a whole-nother ballgame with the size and the speed and everything, even like facilities, the coaching that you get and the competition that you’re playing every week.

“Then the transition from Nebraska to Texas was crazy as well. (Nebraska coach John Cook) had asked me to take my seventh season. I really did not want to take that seventh season, because I had already played for soooo long, I was embarrassed. The last season at Nebraska, we fell just short that one game. We were so close and I was so crushed at the end of that season.”

But the script flipped when Texas went 28-1 in 2022 and swept Louisville in the NCAA title match, with Caffey starting in the middle during the final and leading the Longhorns in blocks with four.

“To come back with Texas and win it on that stage was so awesome,” she said. “That whole season was amazing the way it all came together. Playing with incredible teammates like Logan (Eggleston) and Asjia (O’Neal) and Madi (Skinner) and Saige (Ka’aha’aina-Torres) and Zoe (Fleck), everyone on that team. It was such a great program and that we were able to win it all just put the cherry on top. It was the perfect way to end my career. I felt happy finally retiring after seven years. I could not retire until I had a championship. So now I can retire in peace, everyone. Goodbye!”

Between the end of the Longhorns’ season and the start of practice with Athletes Unlimited in September, she played for the Criollas de Caguas team, a perennial power in the Puerto Rican pro league. She also worked as a substitute teacher at a South Side elementary school in her native Chicago, and helped coach Jerritt Elliott’s Texas squad prepare for this season by serving as a practice player.

Caffey jumped at the opportunity to sign with Athletes Unlimited. During the short time spent in Arizona practicing with her peers, she has become “so excited. I love AU’s format. It’s really, really cool.

“There is a draft every week. It’s really player-driven. I’ve been here for about a week and they’ve already had so many workshops for us, just to make us better humans, to educate us on topics around the world, helping us become more aware. It’s also really cool that they have these facilitator-coaches who come in and have our practice planned out. But it’s not what you have to do. It’s very different than college. They’re giving us the autonomy that professional volleyball should have. If you need to, you can take care of your body, step out of practice if you need to go do treatment. I absolutely love the environment.”

Caffey also has been impressed by the “mindblowing” talent assembled by Athletes Unlimited.

“I played at two pinnacles of college volleyball and I can tell the difference,” she said. “There is so much talent in this gym, it’s unreal. These are grown women! The strength, the experience, the knowledge of the game, I feel like almost a freshman in college again. This is all new to me. Others have played overseas and they have more experience in that professional setting than I do. Every day I’m just so grateful to be here.”

The AU competitive structure awards points for individual statistics such as kills, aces, assists, digs and blocks, and subtracts points for errors. “Team” points also are earned by winning sets and for match victories. The champion of the league is the player who accrues the most points over the course of the season’s 15 matches, three per week. Caffey is realistic about her long odds of copping top honors, or even being one of the four weekly team captains.

“A middle has never, ever been the captain because of the points-scoring table,” she said. “Middles don’t get that many balls, so it’s really hard for us to be the captain. But with the draft and the chance to play with different players, different combinations, It will never get boring.”

A few months after the AU season concludes, Caffey will continue in the pay-for-play ranks with the Professional Volleyball Federation, a startup venture that hopes to capitalize on the growing interest in the sport seen in metrics such as attendance, TV viewership and participation at the high-school level.

She has signed with the Grand Rapids Rise, which recently announced the addition of beach Olympian Sarah Sponcil. The west Michigan club also has signed former Louisville star Claire Chaussee and veteran middle Nia Grant.

Caffey spoke with unbridled optimism about playing pro ball at home — rather than overseas — which had been the only viable option for American collegiate stars.

“It’s so exciting!” Kayla said. “I was asked all the time in college, the seven years I was there, if I had the desire to play professional volleyball, and a lot of the time my answer was, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t know that I wanted to play pro volleyball at all until the last season that I spent at Nebraska. At that point, that was my sixth year, and that was mostly because of the huge surge in interest in women’s volleyball in the United States.

“I had heard nothing, honestly, but negative things about overseas ball, even though it’s ‘a great experience, this, that and the other.’ But a lot of people just talk about how it’s hard, you’re there by yourself, and it’s culture shock. That just didn’t sound inviting to me, something that I wanted to do.

“But I knew I wanted to play at that next level, so whenever I found out about AU and then there was PVF, yes, it is a huge change in this country’s (volleyball landscape).” Caffey added. “It’s a super-cool opportunity and I just can’t wait to see what this continues to grow into. I’m planning on staying here and doing the domestic route. I think all of the Americans are going to want to come home and just play on our soil.

“Volleyball has grown enormously. There have been attempts before to have pro volleyball leagues that couldn’t hang on, but the sport just wasn’t that big yet. This is a good time for it. That will play a huge role in why I am confident it will stick.”

The logistics of playing just across Lake Michigan from her home appealed to Caffey, and she has gotten to know some of her future Rise teammates who also are on Athletes Unlimited’s roster.

“Grand Rapids is just a few hours away from where I live in Chicago, so it’s perfect,” Kayla said. “We have three girls here who are on my team here at AU, so we can get to know each other a little bit better and build up that chemistry, because we’re going to be playing together really soon. I’m likely to be staying home for a little bit, especially with the trajectory that PVF is going to take. With the talent the league has signed and the venues it has lined up, It’s going to be really well done.

“With all of these forces of volleyball coming together, I’m so excited. Our (Grand Rapids) team is stacked, but the other teams are, too. It’s going to be epic.”

Click here for more on Athletes Unlimited and look for our season preview Thursday.

Kayla Caffey of Texas hits against Oklahoma in 2022/Texas photo