Leah McNary has been there for much of Creighton volleyball's ascendancy from weak little sister program in the shadow of Big Red to all-grown-up competitor holding its own.
"It's exciting being a part of a process of building a program," she says. "We've progressed a long way. I think we are up there with them (Nebraska) now."
The Florida native came to Omaha after only three years of serious volleyball competition. Many colleges missed on this classic late-bloomer. What she lacked in refined skills she made up for with athleticism, something that runs deep in her family. Two older sisters were major college scholarship track athletes and her father played college basketball. Though her mother didn't play competitive college sports, she was a cheerleader. McNary was leaning to cheerleading herself after finding basketball too physical but settled on volleyball.
Her club play brought her to the attention of CU head coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth, who couldn't help but see what gets everyone pumped about McNary – explosive jumping ability and ridiculous elevation. Combined with a long arm span and the ability to strike the ball with great force, McNary has all the tools of an elite outside hitter. Except she's 5'10 – 5'8 3/4 without shoes. Despite being susceptible to the block, she's been an elite attacker all four years at CU and she's heavily contributed to the Bluejays becoming a Top 25-caliber team and making two consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.
Where CU invariably got swept by the Huskers, they regularly take a set now. They even beat NU in an exhibition. McNary's a reason why CU now hangs with the big girls, though they've struggled against ranked foes this year.
She nearly bypassed athletics altogether to follow her true passion – the arts. She's played music from a young age and she's now a studio art major. She's interested in doing art therapy one day. Booth says it's the first time she's coached someone who identifies as an artist. That artistic inclination is expressed in McNary's highly emotional and empathetic nature. She's channeled her feeling-creative side into being an intense competitor, though her emotions still get the better of her. Booth says McNary's at her best on the court when she has her emotions in check and her confidence on high.
After a solid start to this senior season McNary's scuffled. Her season attack percentage is well below .200 owing to excessive hitting errors. Getting kills has never been a problem but even finding clean hits is a chore lately. Aware she's pressing, she's intent on correcting her mechanics, particularly her approach to the net. A sign of how far the program's come is that even a year ago CU would have been in trouble with McNary slumping like this but Booth's built such quality depth the team's dominating Big East play (8-1) and doing fine overall (15-7) despite McNary's decreased production.
Given her history she's sure to get back on track.
"Coach says we're a really resilient team and I think I've become a resilient player. When obstacles and tough situations present themselves I keep pushing through. I'm a very determined person. Working hard is something I take pride in. I want to be the best at whatever I do, even in art. That's driven me. I think my drive is what pushes me over the edge. I have such a competitive edge because I hold myself to high standards. It hurts me to not do well "
She's led the team in kills each of the past two years and is on pace to finish in the top five in kills all-time at the school. She carried CU to its only Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in 2012 and to a second place finish in its inaugural Big East campaign last year.
Pegged to redshirt as a freshman, McNary developed so quickly and the team struggled so badly that three weeks into that season Booth inserted her into a match for the first time. It just happened to be against in-state rival and perennial measuring stick Nebraska. She proved she belonged and hasn't looked back since.
"I was new to such a high level of volleyball. I think I've grown into being a confident player."
One reason why she stood out in the NU match is that she was the lone African-American on the court. That situation occurs less and less frequently as volleyball becomes more inclusive.
"I feel like the sport's getting more diverse, which is awesome. It's an encouraging thing," says McNary, who idolized Destiny Hooker growing up and now has two black teammates in Marysa Wilkinson and Brittany Lawrence. NU has its first ever black commit in Tiani Reeves. McNary hopes more girls who look like them are inspired to pursue the sport.
A big early confidence boost came between her freshman and sophomore years when she made a spring 2012 developmental trip to China with NU's Alicia Ostrander to train with Chinese national players.
"I was so nervous. I wondered, What if I'm not good enough? It actually ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I for sure learned a high level of play. I think it made me appreciate the sport more."
The grueling, multi-hour practices steeled her for anything.
"When I got back for summer two-a-day workouts it seemed so much easier. I had already prepared myself for a really tough season. China was like my preseason before preseason. I felt like I was more prepared, especially conditioning-wise, and I found myself getting after it more because everything there you had to go one-hundred percent.
"That trip showed me what I was capable of. It showed me what could be my future if I worked hard."
As a sophomore she made first team All-MVC and was named to the league's All-Tournament team. Last year she was a first-team All-Big East selection. She and teammate Kelli Browning were selected by USA Volleyball to participate in the U.S. Collegiate National Team program.
She now has aspirations of playing professionally (beach volleyball) after college. Major expectations spring from her high-achieving, super competitive family. Her mother's a county judge in Florida.
"It makes me believe I can do anything in life."
McNary, who has a heart for children, enjoyed a team trip to Nicaragua last summer that saw her and her teammates train and play matches but also do community service work with kids. She's also made an Athletes in Action trip to Mexico that involved service work.
A perk about playing in the Big East is getting to visit places like New York City and the nation's capital.
McNary's started a family legacy at Creighton, where her sister Madison now attends law school.
With a big home stand this weekend against Big East foes Marquette (Friday) and DePaul (Sunday), CU can polish its resume for the NCAA selection committee. Should McNary and her mates make it back to the post-season, as they fully expect to, they plan advancing deeper in the tournament than before.
"We have all the pieces to do it. We just need to get over that hump."
McNary and Co. play at 7 p.m. Friday and at 1 p.m. Sunday at D.J. Sokol Arena. For tickets, visit www.gocreighton.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.