La Verne volleyball is well on its way to returning to form as one of the nation’s best Division III programs, and they are doing it with the dominance of sophomore outside hitter and right side hitter Mya Ray.
After tearing it up as a freshman last season, when she earned numerous awards that include Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference All-Conference, SCIAC Newcomer of the Year, American Volleyball Coaches Association All-West Region Team, AVCA West Region Freshman of the Year, and was an AVCA All-American Honorable Mention, Ray only got better and lead the Leopards to their best season since 2009.
The Leopards finished the 2023 campaign 25-5 overall and 13-3 in SCIAC play, earning a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016 and making it to the Sweet 16 before ultimately losing to the No. 5 nationally ranked Wisconsin-Oshkosh in the Regional Final. In the latest AVCA Rankings, the Leopards came in at 15th in the nation. No Leopards volleyball team has made it further or been ranked higher than this year’s team since 2009.
Although it was a team effort to get this far, Ray stole the show and brought in even more accolades. She earned AVCA First Team All-American, AVCA All-Region, SCIAC Offensive Athlete of the Year and SCIAC First Team All-Conference. First Team All-American means that Ray was recognized as being one of the best 14 players in the nation at the Division III level.
“I was more happy and excited that I got to see all the work I’ve been putting in paying off, and it just helped me feel more encouraged to keep going and pushing harder,” Ray said.
To say Ray dominated this season is an understatement. She led the SCIAC in kills per set at 4.79 and her 517 kills on the year were over 100 more than the next closest player in the SCIAC. The 4.79 kills per set ranked sixth in the nation and the 517 kills ranked seventh in the nation as well.
Ray’s volleyball career began in her freshman year at Diamond Ranch High School. She said that as soon as she started playing, she knew she wanted to play at the collegiate level.
Ray said assistant coach Mario Meza was a coach at Diamond Ranch High School when she was a freshman, and she first met head coach Jeff Hendershot at the end of her age 17 year and going into her age 18 year in club. The La Verne staff was able to see Mya grow as someone just starting out in volleyball, into a real prospect.
“It’s like, she just started playing volleyball, she’s super athletic, like she’s going to be good,” Hendershot said.
After going through the recruiting process, Ray decided to take her talents to La Verne. Ray knew she wanted to go to La Verne after a visit because she said that all of the players and coaches had the best personalities.
Ray’s impressive freshman campaign started from game one with 13 kills in a win in the season opener against Linfield.
“I was playing at the next level and just making sure that I was mentally and physically ready to go into one of my first games at the collegiate level with a harsh mindset that I couldn’t make mistakes,” Ray said. “I was getting a chance to play on the court so I had to do something about it.”
Earning all of those accolades as a freshman is rare. Ray’s immediate impact was incredible, but maybe not so shocking.
“I think it was a mix of her taking the coaching really well and a little bit of the freshman naivety where she knew what she was doing but she didn’t know how good she was,” Hendershot said. “She was just playing volleyball and I don’t think anyone was surprised by it necessarily, but we were a little surprised by it.”
Ray then followed up her freshman year and one-upped herself, with more accolades including AVCA First Team All-American and top 10 finishes in the nation in kills and kills per set. Ray attributes this year’s success to ULV’s strength and conditioning coach.
“My biggest ‘thank you’ would probably go to (conditioning coach Matt) Durant for doing all he does for us,” Ray said. “It’s mentally tiring and physically tiring, but through the whole summer with coach Durant pushing us to our limits, we went into the volleyball games this year mentally and physically stronger than last year.”
The on-court success is what earns her all the accolades, but her teammates say she is a champ off the court as well.
“Mya is a very sweet, kind and genuine person,” sophomore outside hitter and right side hitter Lexi Giacobbe said. “She has an energy and smile that just lights up our day.”
Graduate student middle blocker and right side hitter Ayana Mier has also known Ray since Ray was a freshman in high school, and she is impressed with how far Ray has come.
“I just remember seeing her as this super shy and quiet girl, but she could still jump out of the gym, like just insanely athletic at the same time,” Mier said. “So just seeing her as the person she is now, is just so beautiful, like she’s really just grown into herself and figured out her path.”
When one goes to a Leopards volleyball game, what they see is what they get when it comes to Ray.
“That quiet, smiling personality she shows on the floor, that’s Mya,” Hendershot said. “She really is that sweet and genuine, and she really cares about her teammates.
“One thing I never have to worry about is emotionally or mentally where she’s at. I know she wants to be good, I know she cares about her teammates, and I know she’ll do anything to help the team win.”
With the offseason now here after a finish in the Sweet 16, Ray and the rest of the team are already itching for next season.
“I feel like that’s going to motivate us so much more too,” Ray said. “Just to know that next year, we have such a good seeding already, next year we could go into games and tournaments with the mindset we are better than a lot of the teams that we’re going to play against. We already have a vision that we’re going to make it past the Sweet 16.”
Jack Janes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.