Why volleyball — not basketball — is winning the popular vote

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Basketball figured to be the game for Micaya White. Her dad, Randy White, played in the NBA. Her brother, R.J., is the starting center for UNC Greensboro. Micaya joined her first team when she was 6.

“Everybody assumed I was going to play too,” the 6-foot-1 White said.

There was just one problem. She didn’t love it.

“When I tried to show aggression, I’d end up hurting another player or fouling out of the game.” More than that, White cringed, “I hated being touched. I’m a germ freak, so a sweaty person touching me freaked me out.”

A conversation with the volleyball coach at her middle school opened up an avenue she never considered. Urged to try out for the school’s team, White hesitated.

“I didn’t want to suck at it, and I knew nothing about it,” she said.

But within a week, White fell in love with the game in which the block party never ends. Volleyball fired up her competitive juices just as much as basketball, if not more.

“Only there was a net in between,” she said. “You can put in all this aggression toward one object and let it out.”

Basketball’s loss became volleyball’s gain. White was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year at Texas, which reached the NCAA title game in December.

Her decision to pick volleyball over basketball follows a national trend. Two years ago, for the first time, more high school girls played volleyball (432,176) than basketball (429,504), according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2015-16, volleyball added another 4,133 girls to those numbers, while basketball lost 276 participants.

Examine the past decade, and the numbers are more striking. Statistics compiled by the NFHS show an increase of more than 40,000 volleyball players in that span and a decrease of 23,000 basketball players.

“There’s been a huge African-American crossover into our sport, and it’s become the social norm now to play volleyball, whereas 10 or 15 years ago, it was basketball,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “It appeals not just to the super tall but the super small. The super small has a niche with the libero and the [defensive specialist] position where they can find success at a very high level.”

Volleyball, which had its national semifinals showcased on ESPN in December, has evolved way past the days of a picnic pastime.

“There’s a whole lot of girls out there who like to be powerful, who like to be strong and assertive and aggressive, but they also like having a net between them,” said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “They don’t enjoy checking each other or boxing each other out or slide tackles.”

Mike Flynn, editor of the national recruiting newsletter Blue Star Report and a longtime authority on girls’ basketball, points to all the choices girls have today and the challenges specific to basketball.

“You go where you see success and where you have access to success,” he said. “Basketball is a hard sport to master. Unless you’re willing to put in the time and effort and have a certain level of athleticism and hand-eye skills, you will not be successful. You will be pushed out of the sport because of what it demands. In volleyball and lacrosse, those barriers are lower.”

Jasmyn Martin set aside basketball recruiting letters from Tennessee in favor of a stack of mail from volleyball coaches. Martin, who graduated from Hopkins High in Minnetonka, Minnesota, a semester early to train with the Gophers this spring, prefers the energy of volleyball to hoops.

“The relationships you build, how together you are, set it apart from basketball,” she said. “You come together after every point.”

Hayley McCorkle, who finished her career on North Carolina’s volleyball team last fall, was born two hours away from basketball-crazed Tobacco Road. Once rated a three-star recruit by espnW HoopGurlz, she chose volleyball over hoops.

“I wanted to compete against someone, but I didn’t want that physical contact,” she said. “Volleyball allows you to be a little more of a girl. You get to wear the ribbons, wear pink, wear your hair however you want and still be dainty when you play the sport. That draws a lot of young athletes to the sport.”

Washington’s Kara Bajema was one of many volleyball players who echoed that sentiment. The 6-foot-2 freshman middle blocker twice earned state MVP honors after leading Lynden Christian High, about two hours north of the Huskies’ campus, to a pair of championships in basketball. But she gravitated toward her other love, volleyball, and committed to Washington at the end of her sophomore year.

“Honestly, I just like the volleyball environment better. It’s a little more chill,” she said. “Basketball is definitely more hard-core, and I like being a girly girl sometimes.”

But Bajema encourages girls not to decide on one sport too early.

“Play as many sports as you can in high school, and have fun with them,” she said. “Some people feel the pressure to choose so early. I would encourage people to play as many sports as they can in high school.”

Although it’s rare, not everyone makes a choice, even in college.

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