Kayla Caffey: Mastering Change and Evolving through Volleyball

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
Savanna Collins
Oct 20, 2023

With its unique flair and reimagined point system, the Athletes Unlimited model can sometimes be tough to grasp at first – even for players. Getting drafted and changing teams every week challenges players’ adaptability, communication, and resilience.

But for Kayla Caffey, it’s been a breeze. The rookie middle blocker is used to change. She transferred three times in her seven-year collegiate career.

In the era of the transfer portal and college athletes switching schools more than ever, Caffey understood what she was capable of throughout her college career and, more importantly, what she needed in the program she chose.

It’s what helped her not only get it right once but all three times.

Knowing herself

Caffey started her career at the University of Missouri where she spent four years as a Tiger. Even as a high schooler, she had a strong sense of self-awareness that helped her decide where to commit.

“I don’t think that I was ready to go straight from high school to Big Ten volleyball. I wasn’t at that level physically or mentally. So I think Mizzou was a great foundational piece for me,” Caffey said.

She took an NCAA redshirt her first season at Mizzou in 2016 but earned a spot in the lineup her redshirt freshman year. She recorded 130 total blocks to rank fifth in the SEC, top-75 in the NCAA, and 10th all-time in Missouri history. She missed the 2018 season due to injury and redshirted again. Caffey came back stronger in her final year with the Tigers, captaining the team and ranking nationally with a .408 overall hitting percentage during the season.

“I loved my coaches while I was there,” Caffey said. “They really just nurtured you as a person first and then as an athlete, and by the time I was finished at Mizzou, I kind of was feeling like I could take this step to the next level.”


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Technically still a junior in eligibility, Caffey began exploring her options and had scholarship offers from Minnesota and Nebraska. She had to make her decision in the middle of the COVID pandemic which meant meeting her future coaches and campus virtually. She chose Nebraska, site unseen.

What she learned when she arrived was that she had some misconceptions about the Big Ten that she would find to be untrue.

“Coming out of Mizzou, I just really wanted a warm program to go to because in my head I was like, ‘Oh, the Big Ten is just like you eat or get eaten,'” Caffey said. “[I thought] they don’t really care about their players… I had never been in the Big Ten, just watching them and they’re paying at such a high level. I was like, there’s no way that they can also care about their players. But that was so wrong.”

Caffey’s experience at Nebraska is not only one she’s proud of but one she reflects on fondly. In almost every interview about her college career, she brings up Tyler Hildebrand, one of her Huskers assistant coaches, as one of the most impactful people in her life.

Though there was one assumption she got right about Big Ten Volleyball – she was going to work harder and do things she’d never done before. She described the Husker program as “running a tight ship” where she put together all the pieces to excel. Taking her nutrition and fitness seriously, doing film assignments and homework, and training longer than ever before.

“I had never practiced for three hours at Mizzou, but when I got to Nebraska, that was a normal thing to do. It was just taking [it] up another level in all aspects of everything.”

In the 2020 season that was cut short, Caffey played in 17 matches averaging 2.04 kills and 1.09 blocks per set and second on the team in blocks. COVID granted her another year of eligibility and Caffey came back in 2021 and became an AVCA Second Team All-American, ranked fourth in Big Ten play for hitting percentage (.376), and competed for an NCAA title.

“I think every year that I played, I got more confident in my abilities and I think that really blossomed for me at Nebraska.”


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A post shared by KAYLA CAFFEY (@itskayalexis)

Asking the Right Questions

Caffey was two-for-two when it came to choosing the right program for her career. How did she know being a Husker was the fit for her, especially after never meeting her coaches and teammates before committing?

By asking the right questions.

“I was older and so I had experienced college. I had taken a mental note of things that I liked and I did not in a program, and so I was able to ask those specific questions. What’s your philosophy on volleyball? What’s the punishment for something that happens in practice? Just certain questions that you should ask and you can really get to learn a coach’s philosophy, how they react when they’re frustrated or upset, and different scenarios. It’s just really unique to you and how you like to be coached as well.”

For her future teammates, she looked at their social media. As she scrolled she asked herself, “Do I feel like I can fit in with these girls? Do they seem happy when I watch them on TV? Do they post things that they do outside of volleyball? Are they only doing volleyball? Just looking at those little things.”

And of course, asking about academics. Caffey earned a bachelor’s degree from Missouri in elementary education and wasn’t going to go somewhere that didn’t have the graduate program she was interested in. She said if she sacrificed academics for the volleyball “it would’ve been a mess.”

“Academics are important. I’m a student and then I’m an athlete.”

In December 2021, Caffey graduated with her master’s degree in teaching, learning and teacher’s education from Nebraska. She thought this would be the end of the road for her college career, but head coach John Cook convinced her to consider playing out her last season of eligibility in 2022. Caffey decided for one last go-round but would have to make one more change. Nebraska didn’t have a scholarship available for her.

Joy in the unexpected

Caffey was in the headspace to play another year of college but needed a place to play. So, for her seventh and final season of eligibility, Caffey went to the University of Texas.

“Jared Elliot is an amazing human being,” Caffey said. “The fact that he picked me up so late in the game and he just believed in me so hard and wanted me to have a great senior year. He literally told me when I got there, ‘We’re going to win. We’re going to do this.’ And I believed him.”

In her last season, Caffey participated in 25 matches and 67 sets, making significant contributions with 95 kills and 72 total blocks. Her years of work elevating her game culminated in the ending every college athlete dreams about – a championship. The Longhorns won the 2022 NCAA Division I title.


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From a Tiger, to a Husker, to a Longhorn, Caffey didn’t make the journey for nothing. Along the way she continuously evolved, from what she considered an offensive middle to now more of a defensive blocker.

“I think that my blocking game has grown significantly, and that’s always an area that I was slacking in,” Caffey explained. “I’m relaxed at the net. I trust in my abilities and what I can do.”

So waiting to be picked and changing teams every week at AU? No problem for Caffey. She recognized she’s been picked late in the drafts on Tuesdays but is unfazed.

“I feel like that doesn’t bother me or shake me because I’m really confident in who I am as a player, and I know that if anyone wants to put me out on the court, I would get the job done, and so I think that just confidence is something that I’ve grown in a lot.”

After two weeks of competition, Caffey leads the league in blocks with 16 and has earned MVP honors in two of her six matches.

“I feel free when I go out there and play. I don’t feel stressed. I don’t feel anxious because I’ve done this before. I’ve played at the highest level of volleyball I played in Nebraska. I played at Texas and won the national championship. I’ve been coached by great people and played with all kinds of people, so I just feel super confident in all my experiences.”

Growing up, she had two big dreams for her volleyball career: play in the Big Ten and play at Texas. It would take her some time, but she achieved them all.


Savanna Collins is the Digital Media Reporter at Athletes Unlimited. You can follow her on Twitter @savannaecollins.

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