“It’s a lot of fun,” said Molly McCage, who will return to her alma mater, the University of Texas, as Athletes Unlimited pros take on college teams on the Tour. “Obviously it’s something that hasn’t really been done before or if it has, it was awhile ago. The colleges have been so welcoming. All of the coaches understand the mission that we’re on. They’re great hosts.”
McCage helped the Longhorns to an NCAA national championship in 2012, and now she gets to go back and play one more time at Gregory Gymnasium in Austin. She cited examples of the dynamic that has been building between AU pros and college players during the Tour.
“They invite us to pregame meals or dinners or Q and A’s,” she said. “The volleyball world is so small and we want to make it even smaller so these athletes can talk to athletes who have gone through playing professionally, both overseas and with Athletes Unlimited, and giving the best advice they can give and sharing their stories because nobody’s experience is the same with playing professionally in volleyball. And half of our girls coach, as well.
“Deja McClendon got a message from one of the Ohio State girls, who was like, ‘Thank you so much for instilling confidence in me while we were passing during the game.’ Those are the moments that are, ‘This is what it’s all about.’
“Our plan seems to be working.”
That plan is to grow the sport of women’s professional volleyball in the United States by bringing the pro game to college campuses, where the game already is strong.
It also is making college players aware that there options for the pro game in the United States, not just overseas, which had been the only realistic route for most players before Athletes Unlimited came along.
“It’s incredibly important,” said McCage, the chair of AU’s Volleyball Player Executive Committee. “It’s important because we need to make that connection. With college fans, this is it, right? College is the end all, be all. While it’s incredible and it’s growing, we need to make that connection of, ‘You can continue to watch these athletes play professionally.’
“Some of the players go overseas, and that is becoming more accessible to watch, and I hope people continue to watch those athletes. But now we have Athletes Unlimited, and we have other leagues popping up. We need to make that connection and bridge that gap for fans and for the players and the coaches. We need to educate them on, ‘Here are your options.’ We can actually have athletes stay here in the States and continue to play volleyball. Fans are so connected to these players. I have heard so many people who are so excited to watch Sydney Hilley (Wisconsin) play again. She’s a rock star. You should continue to watch her play. She’s a legend in her own right.”
McCage’s story is similar to that of many other volleyballers in Athletes Unlimited. She had played in Germany and was ready to come home for good, leaving her sport behind. A phone call from a volleyball legend changed her life.
“I had retired, using air quotes,” she said. “I moved to California. I finished playing overseas. I was just a little sick of living overseas. Jordan Larson reached out, and said, ‘Would you play again if it were here in America?’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah. That would be the best-case scenario.’
“I got to know the people within Athletes Unlimited. I think the biggest passion piece is growing volleyball here in America and making sure these players have an option to play professionally. But then I also got to know the wonderful and incredible people within AU. We’re growing women’s sports, not just volleyball. I had taken a deep dive and learning that all women playing sports need to have better opportunities. So however I can be involved is what I want to do.”
That involvement includes being in a leadership role so she can share her voice and opinions, an opportunity Athletes Unlimited provides to athletes across all of its sports: volleyball, softball, lacrosse and basketball.
“I have been on the PEC since Day One of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball,” McCage said. “Now I sit as a chair. It’s not like I have wedged myself into every single conversation. I’ve been invited from the get-go. People are just asking me my opinion. Jon and Jonathan (co-founders Patricof and Soros) and everybody within the organization are like, ‘You know volleyball best. Why don’t you and the other five PEC members tell us about what you want and need, what you think is fair and what you think is fair in the world? Should we talk about anti-racism, especially while we’re in Texas playing the season?’
“We formed this Texas working group. It’s incredible the conversations that we have internally. We meet with the staff once a week. We’re always involved in every major decision. We were never even invited to these kinds of things overseas. That was not even expected. Just to be asked, ‘Hey, do you want to wear spandex or leggings?’ Leggings. And they were like, ‘OK, no worries.’ It’s incredible just to be given that kind of freedom. And they treat us like the professionals we are.”
McCage is one of two superstar players in Athletes Unlimited to hail from the University of Texas. The other is softball pitcher Cat Osterman, who helped AU establish an identity from the start in 2020. McCage remembers one encounter with Cat.
“When I was in college, I was getting taped before a game or practice,” she said. “Cat Osterman walked into the training room, and all the staff was like, ‘That’s Cat Osterman.’ I was starstruck. And then I met her at softball because I was the player-care coordinator on site. I got to meet her in person and chat her up. Obviously, we have the Texas connection. She is a legend.”
What legends do is set an example for younger players and pave the way for them to follow in their footsteps and make their sports better.
McCage says perseverance is the key to that success, citing her own experience.
“You gotta stick with it,” she said. “Sports are the key to so much happiness in my life, and I think it just builds empathy. It builds character. We’ve all been on teams that make it really hard to stay in your sport. But if you can kind of stick it out and find the reasons why this brings you so much joy … I can’t imagine my life without sports and the people I’ve met along the way.
“It’s truly changed my life, and I think I’m much, much better for it, having played a team sport and meeting all the wonderful, wonderful people. My community is so strong. I stepped outside into the corporate life for a little bit and I can’t tell you how much I craved being part of a team again. I can’t imagine my life without it now.”
Bruce Miles has covered sports in the Chicago area for more than 40 years, covering baseball, hockey, football, college and high school sports, and Athletes Unlimited Softball. You can follow him on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.
Former Wildcats Kaz Brown, Leah Edmond return to Kentucky
© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
Sydney Hilley excited to play in the US and return to Wisconsin
© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: James Zehren
Erin Fairs excited to bring AU Volleyball to Louisville
© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
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