Jim Cartisser remembers the day he saw Airi Miyabe step off the airplane.
Cartisser, then the assistant women’s volleyball coach at College of Southern Idaho, came to pick up the program’s newest recruit. Miyabe had just arrived from her home in Osaka, Japan, and this was her first time in the United States.
She spoke almost no English. Cartisser said when they went to McDonald’s for lunch after leaving the airport, she had to point to the items she wanted on the menu, and she found the restroom only via the female icon on the door.
“It’s not like I had no knowledge of English,” Miyabe said via video chat. “It’s like when you go to high school and you take Spanish. It’s like you know some of it … but it’s not usable. I knew like this much.”
She took her thumb and index finger and spread them apart just a fraction to illustrate her point.
A lot has changed for Miyabe since that day, both on the volleyball court and off it. After a standout stint at CSI, a junior college in Twin Falls, Idaho, she has carved a niche with No, 9 Minnesota. The Gophers (17-6, 12-3 and tied for first in the Big Ten) play host to No. 6 Purdue on Sunday.
And as for Miyabe’s English?
“You talk to her now, and you think she would have grown up in the States,” Cartisser said.
Miyabe’s odyssey has been, as Cartisser called it, “one of those Disney movie things.” She has gone from reluctant youth player to a key piece of the puzzle for one of the top programs in the nation.
Playing volleyball as a favor to a friend
Born to a Nigerian father and Japanese mother, Miyabe, by her own estimation, began playing volleyball at age 8. At the time, she never dreamed where it would lead because she got into it only as a favor to a friend.
She said her friend’s team needed an extra player for a weekend of matches, otherwise the team would not have enough bodies to compete. Miyabe said she wanted to quit after the weekend was over, but that would have left the team short a player again. She finally got another friend to join and then another.
After that, she was reluctant to bail on her friends.
“I wasn’t like the kid who would go outside and then play,” Miyabe said, adding she also played a little tennis in her youth. “I used to read a lot of books. Sports (was) not my thing. I used to play just for fun, not competing at all.”
Miyabe continued to play, mainly as a social outlet because she enjoyed being with the other girls on the team. But once she was ready to go into junior high, something was happening. The team suddenly was competitive, and winning added some extra incentive for Miyabe to keep playing.
When she reached junior high age, she was put in a private middle/high school where, when she wasn’t in classes, she was playing volleyball. She said her day of volleyball and classes would begin at 8 a.m. and last until 8 p.m.
Once she reached high school, she received an invitation from the Japanese national team. That’s when she encountered teams from other countries, and the experience was eye-opening.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my god. There’s so many good people out there,’ ” she said. “ ‘They’re so tall, really smart. Maybe I should see how other types of people play volleyball.’ I think that was the turning point. I wanted to go outside Japan to play volleyball.”
She began emailing programs in the United States to see what her options were.
Meanwhile, Miyabe had come on CSI’s radar. Laura (Benzing) Kasey, the associate head coach at Minnesota and former member of Oregon State’s staff, was well-acquainted with Heidi Cartisser, the head coach at College of Southern Idaho. Kasey had come across Miyabe when the Gophers were in Japan for their trip abroad, which NCAA programs are permitted to do every five years.
That connection brought Miyabe to Twin Falls.
“Zero English. That’s why we got her,” Jim Cartisser said. “Obviously, she had the talent to play in the Big Ten immediately but didn’t have the (test) scores to get into Minnesota.”
So Miyabe got on a plane. Destination: Idaho.
The volleyball program at College of Southern Idaho is — except to perhaps the most maniacal college fans — largely unknown. But the Golden Eagles are titans in the juco world, having won 12 National Junior College Athletic Association titles.
The Golden Eagles regularly send their players to Division I teams. Two of Miyabe’s former teammates, in fact, are playing at big-time programs: defensive specialist Kylie Baumert (USC) and libero Makayla Bradford (Cal State Northridge).
CSI also is among the schools that pioneered the use of overseas talent. CSI, Cartisser said, was getting international players before many Division I programs started recruiting them.
“It wasn’t like we weren’t good before (Miyabe) got here,” he said. “But she’s a once-in-a-lifetime player for our level.”
Miyabe might have been able to fit in on the volleyball court with ease. On campus and in the classroom was another matter. On top of her regular course load, she had to take additional English as a Second Language classes.
Cartisser said she spent the first six months using her phone to translate all of the English-language homework into Japanese. But, Cartisser said, she was undaunted.
“What would take you and me a minute and a half to read and comprehend, it would take her an hour,” he said. “But that’s the kind of kid she is.”
While she grinded away with her studies, she found her comfort zone on the volleyball court. She helped lead the Golden Eagles to the NJCAA title match in her first season, but CSI was swept by Miami-Dade Community College.
Then came another challenge. After the 2017 season had ended and the team went on winter break in December, tragedy. Heidi Cartisser, just 44, died in her sleep, according to published reports.
Jim Cartisser stepped in, and the team, Miyabe said, suddenly had an extra sense of urgency.
“I think that was the point where the next year, we were like, we have to win this year for Jim and Heidi,” Miyabe said. “We had a really strong will or goal for what we wanted to achieve. I think that was a huge thing for me in my volleyball career.”
In 2018, CSI went 31-2 and again advanced to the NJCAA title match, again to face Miami-Dade. This time, it was the Golden Eagles who came away with the sweep and the national title.
Miyabe had 23 kills (hitting .370), two aces, a block and three digs. She was the tournament MVP, capping a season in which she averaged 4.28 kills per set, hit .302 and averaged 2.86 digs per set — a remarkable number considering she came to CSI with almost no experience playing back row.
She also was named NJCAA Division I Player of the Year and the AVCA Two-Year College Player of the Year — the first player in program history to earn those distinctions.
“Before the NJCAA caught on, the coach (at CSI) before us was bringing in ex-professional players. We had a couple women who came through who had already played in the Olympics,” Cartisser said. “We’re talking back in the early ’90s. It was the wild West. There were no rules.
“I would even lump her in with those players (talent-wise). She’s just gotten so much better since she got here, and when I watch her play at Minnesota, I think, man, I didn’t think she could get any better when she left here, but she has.”
And she graduated with a 3.8 GPA. She now had the academic standing to go with the talent to get her to the next level.
Would she be a fit at Minnesota?
Minnesota coach Hugh McCutcheon wasn’t totally sure what he was getting with Miyabe.
He knew about her only through emails she had sent inquiring about the program. McCutcheon said he knew some people in Japan with whom he could check to see what she was about.
After the requisite homework, he and his staff decided Miyabe would be a fit for the program.
And she had an ally of sorts to help her ease her latest transition: Nao Ikeda, the Gophers’ longtime director of volleyball ops and a native of Tokyo.
“We can talk a lot of secrets in Japanese,” Miyabe said, flashing a 100-watt smile.
Said Ikeda: “At the beginning, Airi’s English was not as good as it is right now, so I was helping her a little bit as a translator when she needed it. … I was very excited because I like to have somebody from Japan on my team.”
Nothing seemed to be lost in translation on the court. Miyabe, at 6-feet tall, showed she was capable of holding her own.
“This is our first experience with (a juco player),” McCutcheon said, “and it has worked out really well. Solid teammate. Great student. She’s wonderful. Open to feedback. Works hard. … She’s a pleasure to have in the gym.”
And she was needed. In her first season with the Gophers (2019), Minnesota lost its setter to a concussion for almost two months. McCutcheon said he and his staff were “patching things together” with a 5-1 rotation, even having their middle set at times.
While plenty of JC transfers have done well in NCAA Division I, it’s worth noting that Miyabe is the most impactful junior-college transfer for such a high-level program in a long time. Penn State won the 2010 NCAA title with Venezuelan middle Fatima Balza, who transferred from Western Nebraska CC. The year before Julia La Paz became a 2009 All-American at Michigan. She transferred from Iowa Western Community College.
Miyabe appeared in 20 matches in 2019, registering 89 kills (1.82 per set) and hitting .332. Minnesota went 17-3 in the Big Ten (27-6 overall) and reached the NCAA national semifinals in Pittsburgh, losing to eventual champion Stanford in the national semifinals. (Miyabe appeared in one set, registering two kills.)
“My teammates are so good,” Miyabe said. “The first year I came here, I don’t know what I got myself into … I’m so grateful for having them as teammates, and the one thing I have really been working on is being a good teammate. Do whatever it takes to win the game if I’m on the court or outside of the court.”
Her fortitude as a teammate was tested during the covid-interrupted season of 2020. She appeared in only 10 of Minnesota’s 19 matches, often seeing action in only one set.
Still, she was able to make a valuable contribution. After starting as a right-side hitter, she spent a brief time last season playing middle because of injuries in the lineup.
During one three-match stretch in March — the only matches in which she appeared in more than one set — Miyabe amassed 30 total kills.
“She’s been good at lots of things, so her job has been a bit of a jack-of-all-trades if you will,” McCutcheon said, calling the ability to play across all three front-row hitting spots “extremely unusual.”
Jump ahead to this season. When sophomore outside hitter Taylor Landfair went down with an injury in early October, Miyabe got the call. Since that day — a span of 10 matches — Miyabe has posted nine matches with double-digit kills, including 10 (.280) in Thursday’s sweep of Iowa.
“When Taylor got injured, and we needed someone to fill that spot,” McCutcheon said, “Airi jumped in, and she’s done a really good job with it.”
Thursday’s win was the sixth in a row for Minnesota and ninth victory in its last 10 matches. That sets up Sunday’s home showdown against Purdue (18-5, 10-4), which is coming off its Friday-night upset of No. 4 Wisconsin.
This season, Miyabe ranks third on the team in total kills (198) as well as kills per set (2.87). She is hitting .235 and has added 20 blocks, as well as 56 digs and a .976 serve receive percentage (three errors in 125 attempts).
The latter stat is one that jumps out to Cartisser.
“When she got (to CSI), we had no idea she had never been in serve receive,” he said. “When I watch her go now, even though she’s only in three rotations and very rarely has to pass out of serve receive, to go from zero to being in any type of serve receive in the Big Ten is a huge accomplishment.
“I’m excited to see what her next move will be.”
Coming down the home stretch
Miyabe, who will graduate with a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern studies, isn’t sure what the future holds for her and volleyball. She has entertained the thought of playing professionally, but first, she wants to see how the rest of her final collegiate season plays out.
The Gophers certainly have the wherewithal to contend for a national championship. Miyabe said she feels like the team is “in a really good spot,” and success in the rugged Big Ten has given the players the confidence they can go deep into the postseason.
As the final weeks of Miyabe’s American college volleyball experience play out, she will have several interested parties looking on.
Cartisser, who said he still keeps in touch with her from time to time, catches as many matches as he can on TV, and her parents stream her matches online in Japan. They have not been able to see her play in person in the U.S. Miyabe said her parents had hoped to come to see her while she was at Minnesota, but COVID-19 has stood in the way.
Regardless of how they have watched, what they have seen has been obvious to anyone who has followed Miyabe’s progression: She has grown by leaps and bounds since that day she arrived in Twin Falls, Idaho.
“She has such an infectious personality and is such a neat kid,” Cartisser said. “She’s confident, always smiling, always positive. You can’t rattle her.
“I give all the credit to her. She worked her butt off.”