Micaya White thinks a lot about winning the national championship.
The day we spoke, it was late November, still a week away from the NCAA Tournament. And the Texas senior outside hitter acknowledged that she tries to live by the oft-repeated mantra to take it one match at a time, but as December and her last NCAA Tournament approached, that got harder and harder.
“I think about it a lot actually, but I try not to overwhelm myself with it,” White said. “Right now I’m really just trying to focus on Kansas and enjoying my senior night and getting a W for my last home conference game, but it’s kind of hard because it’s starting to get close. In August if you had asked me this, I would have been like, oh, I’m not really thinking about it that much right now.”
But this is the end of her fifth year in Austin. She redshirted her first season, and in 2016 was the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year. And in that time Texas, which last won it all in 2012, has lost in the 2016 national-title match to Stanford, lost in the 2017 NCAA regional final to Stanford, and last year lost in the regional final to BYU.
Right after that interview, Texas beat Kansas in four sets on senior night, then finished the regular season with another four-set victory, this one on the road over Iowa State. They were awarded the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and made it through the first two rounds, although not without a five-set scare last Friday from UC Santa Barbara.
It would be hard to overstate White’s influence on those results, and frankly the success of Texas over the last four years.
White led the team with 479 kills (hitting .273), adding 25 aces, 263 digs, and 83 blocks in 2016. In that national-championship match, White led the Longhorns with 17 kills and six blocks and had 11 digs.
In addition to being the VolleyballMag.com freshman honoree, she was a first team All-American, Big 12 freshman of the year, and earned NCAA all-tournament honors.
As a sophomore, White wrestled with a shoulder injury, but still played in every one of Texas’ 30 matches. She once again led the team in kills, although her overall total went down to 354. She was slightly more effective offensively (.279) and finished the year with 273 digs and 86 blocks. She was a third-team All-American.
“(The shoulder injury) wasn’t super major but I think I let it affect me more mentally, thinking like, ‘I don’t have the same power, I can’t swing the same way, I can’t serve the same way,’ ” White said. “So it did have a toll on me just like thinking I’m going to have another injury, and I didn’t want to go through that again.”
Last season, with a healthy shoulder, she was the team’s top scorer yet again: 391 kills, 244 digs, 52 blocks, and her efficiency went up to .301. She led Texas to its second straight Big 12 conference title, was the Big 12 player of the year, climbed back up to second team All-American status, and surpassed 1,000 career kills.
As a recruit, White had watched Texas win the national title in 2012 and then go to back-to-back final fours in 2013 and 2014. Making it to the national championship match in both her redshirt season and her freshman year confirmed that it was simply to be expected that Texas would still be playing come the final weekend of the season.
The past two seasons led her to realize, “Wow this is actually really hard to get to.”
Which brings us to this year, White’s last in a burnt-orange uniform.
White was the Big 12 preseason player of the year and is the leading scorer on the Texas team that has gone 23-3, winning a share of the Big 12 title with a 15-1 league record. Her numbers show a player who has improved with each passing year: 372 kills (4.00 per set), .306, 30 aces, 228 digs, just 17 reception errors on 399 attempts, and 59 total blocks.
But setting her up for all of these highs, all the accolades, were some pretty dark days. When White arrived at Texas, she redshirted because of a tibial stress fracture in her left leg. That August, she also had to grapple with the death of a good friend who passed away unexpectedly.
So instead of having the glorious freshman year you’d expect from the No. 4-ranked player in the class of 2015, she had to watch her teammates compete while she sat the bench, slogged through rehab, and dealt with her grief, along with facing all of the typical struggles of a freshman living away from home for the first time.
“It was very hard. Went through a lot of downs and … downs,” White said. “I wouldn’t even say I had any ups in that year.”
The volleyball challenges alone would have been enough to make for a brutal year.
“They lose their identity a little bit,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said of redshirting athletes. “They’re not ‘Micaya, the volleyball player,’ and so what happens is they get very disconnected, they don’t feel like they have value. They don’t think they have importance to the team. So they can slide off the scale pretty fast in terms of where they are emotionally.”
But, time after time, Elliott has also seen his players benefit greatly in the long run from taking that first year off, and White was no different. Not only did she take time to heal, but also was able to learn the college game and become a stronger and better volleyball player.
Then, the spring after her redshirt sophomore season, she was pulled over for driving without her headlights on and following too closely. She failed a field sobriety test and was arrested for drunk driving. Charged with driving while intoxicated, White’s case dragged on for more than two years, until finally in July of this year, she pled no contest to the lesser charge of obstruction of a passageway.
White, who was by then a household name among volleyball and Longhorn sports fans, surely wanted to hide under a rock and never come out, but her teammates and coaches helped her move past what was not her proudest moment.
“As a coach, you’re here to kind of be their second parents, and this is a very hard time of their years, you know 18 to 22, they’re learning about themselves,” Elliott said. “Not that you want them to make mistakes, but you want kids to kind of make mistakes so they can kind of learn some life lessons. Not the one that we wanted of this magnitude, but I think it opened (Micaya’s) eyes. She’s taken full responsibility for it. She’s been a model citizen to this point from it.”
After the news of her arrest went public, White heard from a number of fellow athletes who told her that they almost got in a car and driven after drinking, but then thought of her and wisened up. In that way, she hopes that her story has potentially saved someone’s life, or kept them from taking someone else’s.
“Honestly, it wasn’t the hardest thing I ever went through, and it’s definitely a learning lesson,” White said. “I don’t really like to look back on it because it’s been three years, I’ve already pushed forward and made success for myself.”
The incident also taught White that her coaches and teammates had her back. White said former Longhorn Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani was her closest confidant at that time, and when White fretted that everyone would look at her and think she was a bad person, Bedart-Ghani talked her off the edge.
“Everyone goes through stuff and everyone’s going to have difficulties in life. We’re going to mess up and we’re going to make mistakes,” Bedart-Ghani said. “That’s always what I told her, like, look, you made a mistake and all you can do is try to get better from it. There’s no need to worry about that it happened, just know that it happened and know that you’re a good person and you’re a loving person and you made a mistake and to not make that mistake again.”
If you’ve seen White play, you know she’s generally a pretty quiet, calm presence on the court. But when White first got to Texas, she was so quiet, she barely spoke to the coaching staff and she never called for the ball. In one-on-one meetings with Elliott, she’d take a seat in his office and stare at the wall, listening but not contributing.
But Elliott kept scheduling the meetings. And either through immersion therapy, or the simple magic of growing up, White eventually started to relax and open up.
“Morgan (Johnson) and I were some of (Micaya’s) closest friends at school and like we saw first-hand just how much support and love can allow someone to grow and to open up,” Bedart-Ghani said. “I think (Micaya) started to get more comfortable as the years went on because she saw that people were there. They had her back and that allowed her to be like, ‘OK, I can be myself, I can build something here, and I can be happy.’ As soon as she saw that, she was able to give more and more to the team.”
White’s still that calm and collected, and usually quiet, presence on the court, and she has never wanted to take on an official leadership role, but nonetheless her personal transformation has been dramatic.
“I don’t even know how to put into words, the amount (Micaya has grown),” Bedart-Ghani said.
Texas associate head coach Erik Sullivan echoed the sentiment, saying, “I don’t know how to quantify that, but she’s come a long way.”
White says she and her coaches now talk about everything, from music to TV shows and of course volleyball.
“It’s so different,” White said. “I think they say that’s kind of how you start off your freshman year, just kind of scared of your coaches, but then your senior year, it’s like you’re running into their office like, ‘You’re not going to believe what just happened, Jerritt.’ It’s just like that kind of change and growth.”
Perhaps the only thing equally as impressive as her off-court maturity are her on-court improvements, especially considering how good she was coming out of high school.
Despite being one of the top recruits in her class, one thing that needed work when White first arrived in Austin: passing (understandable for a player who spent much of her high school and club careers playing middle blocker). Luckily, that was the first thing she was able to return to in 2015 as her tibial fracture healed.
“When she first got to Texas, passing was a struggle for her, and it’s something she has completely attacked,” Bedart-Ghani said. “From the moment she was able to be on the court … she would be with Erik passing on a chair. That’s all she could do, and then as the years went on, her passing has become really good. But it’s something that she’s worked at.”
By the time the fall of 2016 rolled around, White had improved her passing enough so that she could be a starting six-rotation outside hitter, a position she’s played now for practically every match of the past four seasons.
Always an aggressive server, early on in her career White struggled with errors, making 73 as both a freshman and a sophomore and 71 as a junior. She’s cut it down to 61 errors so far this year, and she has her highest aces total to date with 30 and potentially four more matches to go in the season.
“Her serving has obviously become a weapon for us,” Elliott said. “The last few years it’s been a major hindrance for us, so she’s taken some ownership for that and that’s been big for her. She changed her angle a little bit, but most importantly, she got better at identifying what the bad tosses were and how to adjust to those.”
What’s most impressive, according to Sullivan, is White’s ability to be very good, if not great, at all of the things a six-rotation outside hitter is expected to do.
“With outsides that are doing the things that (Micaya’s) doing, there’s not really like just one specific thing. There’s so many pieces,” Sullivan said. “Their plate is so full of kind of what they have to do, which is why it’s rare, I think in Division I college volleyball to see kids that can play six ros and be proficient at everything.”
White, Sullivan continued is a “really good blocker,” a “pretty nice passer,” has “always been a pretty good defender” (although, he says, they’ve added some discipline to that part of her game), and “developed into a nice topspin serving player for us from the endline.”
She’s gotten to this place by being a workhorse. It’s a term that came up more than a few times in interviewing her coaches and teammates.
“If she’s not at that level that she expects herself to be, she works as hard as possible to get there,” Bedart Ghani said. “She’s probably one of the hardest working people I know. You have to tell her, ‘Caya, get out the gym.’ … I loved being in the gym too, so we really connected by that as well. We would always look at each other, like, ‘Want to go workout?’ ‘Want to go to spin class?’ ”
“You see her in the weight room, she’s got her head down and going hard at it,” Sullivan added.
A student of the game, White always seeks to prove her volleyball IQ.
“She’s always the one asking me questions as we’re going through scouts and walkthroughs,” Sullivan said. “(She’ll ask), ‘What does this kid do, tendency-wise, where do we want to be? Hey, you said this girl is this, do we want to shift this position over?’ ”
White, Sullivan added, is usually also the first to point out when he’s made a mistake on the scouting report.
Even that nagging shoulder injury from White’s sophomore year led to advancements in her game. Without her usual power, she added to her arsenal of shots.
“Her shot selection has become significantly better. She’s starting to understand how to hit every ball and every shot and counteract what the defenses are doing to her,” Elliott said. “Her defense and her passing have really improved over the years. Sometimes (players) don’t see where they’re stepping to, but her numbers continue to grow every year, her development, passing-wise, defensively, serving-wise. Every aspect of her game statistically has improved.”
According to White’s father, Randy, a former Dallas Mavericks player, Micaya has always been ferociously determined and hard-working, qualities that have helped her throughout her life and volleyball career. But he never would have guessed that she’d become a decorated athlete.
Singing and dancing were his little girl’s passions growing up, and she started performing in school talent shows in the third grade. Her time in her first sport, basketball, was short-lived. (Micaya says that’s because she hated being touched and getting other people’s sweat on her.)
But once she found volleyball, where there was the luxury of a net between you and the opponent, White went all in. She committed to Texas as a sophomore and then did everything to make sure she was ready for college when it came. She started working out, changed her eating habits, anything to make her a better volleyball player.
“Her mom worked two jobs and went to school, got her degree, and I think she was just a big example for Micaya,” Randy White said. “Micaya has always been the type of kid that if she sets in her mind that she wants to do something, then you can pretty much cash it, it’s going to happen.
“That drive and that determination, I think that all came from her mom. Now, the athletic ability, I’ll take credit for that,” he added with a chuckle.
The light when on for Randy, when he realized just how good his daughter was at volleyball, in 2014, the summer after Micaya’s junior year in high school. Her Texas Advantage team won the 17 Open title at the USA Volleyball’s Girls Junior National Championships without losing a set, allowing only two opponents to even score 20 or more points.
“At that point, I realized, this kid is going to be really good,” Randy said, “and she’s just continued that same work ethic, that same determination.”
Micaya, fiercely independent today and as a child, never needed much prodding or outside motivation to get things done. Randy recalled waking up one morning when Micaya was no more than 5 or 6 and smelling breakfast cooking. There was Micaya, in the kitchen, cooking bacon, eggs, and pancakes.
“Micaya, what are you doing?” Randy asked his young daughter.
“I was hungry, I’m making breakfast,” she replied.
“You didn’t want to wake us up to fix it?” Randy asked.
“No,” said Micaya. “I fixed it.”
“Ok, where is mine?” Randy said.
“Well, I didn’t say I was fixing you breakfast,” Micaya replied. “I said I was fixing me breakfast.”
“She’s always just had that type of mentality,” Randy said. “If I want to do something, or if I want something done, I’m going to get up and do it.”
Perhaps those best equipped to understand White’s excellence are the coaches who have had to game plan against her for the past four years.
“It feels like she’s been there forever,” fifth-year Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre said. “All I know about Baylor and all I know about Texas is Micaya. She’s pretty much been there as long as I’ve been at Baylor. I think her maturity from day one has always been incredibly strong. To be a successful outside hitter is about managing your shots, and just her ability to both kill the ball and be low-error is a testament to her mentality and the great training she gets by the Texas coaches.”
The first few years, McGuyre said, his team lacked any strategy that worked against White.
“She’d just hit over us wherever she wanted,” he said. “Finally we had enough length where we could at least take some things away, and, again, she still had a lot of other places she could hit, tip, and throw. In the early years for us, all game plans are irrelevant because she was so high above the block that we had at the time.”
Only three teams have defeated Texas this year: tournament No. 3 seed Stanford, No. 1 seed Baylor, and Rice, ranked No. 21 in the latest AVCA poll. The Owls have only had to face Texas once during White’s four-year career, but simply as a lover of volleyball and a member of the Texas college volleyball world, Rice coach Genny Volpe has followed White’s career closely.
“She’s a really special player. I feel like she has the ability when she wants to turn it on, she can just turn it on and score at will,” Volpe said. “When she was up in the air it was just like, ‘Oh god, what is this girl going to do?’ She could crank the four-to-four, she could hit line, she could tip. Her serve is strong. I just think she’s one of the most complete players that I’ve seen on the court.”
And yet you have to ask yourself if White is underrated.
Sure, she’s a three-time All-American, but only one of those was on the first team. White missed out on the 2019 Big 12 postseason player-of-the-year award in favor of Yossiana Pressley. The Baylor outside takes 12.61 swings per set on average and ranks second in Division I with 5.42 kills per set, compared to White’s 10.32 attacks and 4.00 kills per set.
Obviously, Pressley deserved the honor after an incredible year, but White has certainly lost out on a few accolades by virtue of being just a really elite player on a team that is always full of really elite players.
“To the general public, maybe (Micaya is underrated),” Elliott said. “To the ones that really know the game, no. The people that follow the game at a high level know how good she is. Sometimes, when you play for the big-name teams, the Penn States, the Texases, the Stanfords, or whoever it may be, there’s a lot of good players on the team, so it’s easier to get lost.”
“It’s interesting to me, people how they view Texas,” Sullivan added. “They think like, oh, we have all these crazy hitters and I think Micaya probably gets drowned out a little bit in that. Because we do, we have a bunch of nice hitters, but so does everybody else in the top five or six.
“If Micaya is on a team that has less distribution, she’s probably getting more kills per game, but in that too, her hitting percentage is probably coming down a little bit … For Micaya to do what she’s doing and be hitting, I don’t know what she’s hitting, .330 or .320, is crazy. To be a six-ro kid and be doing that is crazy.”
When we spoke prior to the 2019 Big 12 postseason awards being announced, Bedart-Ghani, though admittedly biased, said that she would be really upset if White didn’t get player of the year.
“Look at this team—you can’t have 30 points,” Bedart-Ghani said, making her case for her friend. “It’s almost impossible to have 30 points as one player at a Texas. I don’t even think you’re getting over 30 sets, to be honest, unless you’re playing a five-set match. But if you’re sweeping teams all season, and you’re on the court with four other great hitters, the distribution is different.”
Bedart-Ghani also highlighted White’s consistency. For four years, she’s been doing her thing, leading the team in kills, scoring from behind the service line, passing, playing defense, getting her blocks. Certainly few players in the game have such a record of steady excellence, and you almost have to wonder if her consistency has made her fall under the radar. “Oh, that’s just typical,” you might be tempted to think. “Just Micaya White doing what she always does.” As if it’s been easy, which hopefully by this point in the story you know enough to realize that it hasn’t been.
Oh, also, White happens to be a stud in the classroom. She graduated with her bachelor’s in psychology in May, is a four-time academic all-Big 12 first-team selection, and recently earned the highest academic All-America honor in Texas program history when she landed a spot on the CoSIDA second team with a 3.57 GPA.
“She’ll tell you that she doesn’t like things. Like she’ll tell you she hates school, but I think she’s like a 3.5 or 3.6 kid,” Sullivan said. “It’s like, ‘Ugh, I hate school, this semester sucks,’ and it’s like, ‘What are you getting?’ ‘Oh, I’m getting three As and a B-plus.’”
White played down her academic excellence.
“My mom is like, ‘How did you just become so smart?’” White said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, I’m not smart, I just kind of do what I’m told and what I’m told is to do my homework or my assignments or my exams.’”
White has had little time over her college career to explore interests outside of volleyball. But her teammates will tell you that Micaya off the court is hilarious (as long as you get her humor), obsessed with coffee and makeup, loves yoga and eating clean, and will give it to you straight.
You can’t see them when she’s on the court in her long-sleeved uniform, but White also has a number of tattoos, including one of ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti on her right arm, along with a few roses, henna and mandala designs, and on her left, a tribute to her late friend that reads, “Celeste James, as long as I remember, you’ll always exist.”
Her father describes Micaya as an “old soul.”
“She’s always been pretty level-headed,” Randy said. “She’s going to make the good life decisions. She’s going to do the right things. It’s just always been who she has been. But she’s just, she’s grown phenomenally as a young woman, and just made mom and dad really proud.”
Bedart-Ghani, whom White still talks to on the phone a few times a week, recalled the first time she saw White at club tournaments. She walked around the gym with her Beats headphones on, acting like she owned the place.
And as a high school sophomore, after attending a Texas volleyball camp, White called Elliott and asserted that she’d like to commit, disregarding the fact that he hadn’t yet offered her a scholarship. So much has changed since then, but White still possesses that confidence and determination.
“She is a young lady who has been through a lot and to see where she is today and to see the type of person that she is today, I’m just super proud of her,” Texas associate head coach Tonya Johnson said before the start of the 2019 season.
“She’s worked on herself a lot. She’s worked on her game a lot. She’s a grinder. She loves the game, and she is very attentive to detail in the game. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we can send her out the right way this year.”
And remember, Randy White says his daughter usually gets what she wants.