While watching the NBA Finals last spring, McKenna Miller had a very emotional moment.
Miller — an outside hitter on the BYU volleyball team — said she burst into tears when Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6.
At the time, Miller was going through rehab after tearing her own ACL the previous November.
“I just started bawling,” Miller said. “It wasn’t just tears, it was full on crying. I know how much it sucks when you have an injury during an important time of the year and how much work it takes to get back.”
Miller did the work, and now she’s back.
The senior from Murrieta, California, leads No. 12 BYU in kills per set (3.74) and points (133.5) heading into a big week where the Cougars play at No. 18 Utah and No. 2 Stanford.
That she has returned for her senior year can be emotional at times, too.
“Now that I’m past the injury, it’s cool to be able to look back at how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown as a person,” Miller said. “I had to learn how to lead in ways that aren’t volleyball related. The rehab was harder emotionally than it was physically, which I wasn’t really expecting.”
Miller was BYU’s second-leading hitter behind first team All-American Roni Jones-Perry in 2018. The Cougars upset top-ranked Stanford 3-2 in Provo in late August and ascended to the No. 1 spot in the polls for 11 weeks. On Nov. 8, undefeated BYU (23-0) was playing Santa Clara in the Smith Fieldhouse when Miller came down after taking a swing, something she had done thousands of times before. Only this time, her knee buckled and she sank to the floor in pain. The crowd went silent as she was helped from the court.
The diagnosis was a torn ACL, which meant she was done for the season. The Cougars went on to secure a berth in the NCAA Final Four before losing to eventual champion Stanford.
Miller was faced surgery and the difficult task of rehab.
“The support I got from the community was awesome,” Miller said. “I had people giving me letters, scripture verses and whatever, so it was cool to see. I’m just a volleyball player and I don’t think that’s a big deal but it was great knowing so many people cared and were willing to reach out and be kind.”
Miller credited her teammates, coaches and family, as well as from BYU’s trainers and mental strength coach Craig Manning, with helping her through her recovery. She also received support from BYU men’s volleyball player Alex Ah Sue.
Here’s their “meet-cute” story.
“I always said he was cute,” Miller said. “I asked one of my teammates who was friends with one of his teammates if we could do a game night at my house so he would come over and we could meet. So I made the first move.”
The two were married in May.
“When we first started dating I was asking some ‘get-to-know-you’ questions and I asked him what was his greatest fear,” Miller said. “He gave a legitimate answer and then he asked me what my biggest fear was. I told him ‘Probably tearing my ACL.’ Then it happened.”
Miller was able to start playing a little during spring practice. In the last match against Utah, she was allowed to serve — then she ran off the court and was replaced by another player. She named her knee brace Tiffany — “You know how people have a Tiffany’s bracelet? Well, I have a Tiffany brace,” she explained — and persevered through the exhausting and often tedious parts of rehabilitation.
There were times Miller felt left out, like when Mary Lake, Heather Gneiting and Kennedy Eschenberg were playing for various teams for USA Volleyball during the summer.
“I was the only one who stayed here because I couldn’t go to tryouts,” Miller said. “They killed it and it was so fun to watch them, but now looking back it was awesome for me to stay. I just got a lot of one-on-one time with all the freshmen and my old teammates. I got to form good relationships. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I were somewhere else. It helped me be more assertive with myself and my teammates.”
BYU head coach Heather Olmstead said she appreciated Miller’s resilience and heart and how she really wanted to be a team leader as she worked through the rehab process.
“McKenna took charge of team activities, team workouts and lifting during the summer,” Olmstead said. “She was still a little bit limited on what she could do but as soon as she could play she would gather the troops and teach the young kids what’s like to train in the summer when they are on their own.
“She realizes the opportunity to play is special because she didn’t have that at the end of last year during our run. She takes every day as a gift and she really enjoys it. She knows her time at BYU is running down and you can see how she plays with urgency.”
The Cougars are a young team this season with freshman setter Whitney Bower playing a big role and the growing pains are obvious. But Miller is confident her team will continue to get better every day.
And she feels great.
“I feel I’m as good as I was before I got hurt,” Miller said. “I trust my knee. I just missed being able to play, sitting and watching for so long. Now it’s my turn. Now that I’m finally able to play I don’t even really think about the injury anymore. I would say there’s nothing holding me back.”