Even in third grade, McKenzie Willey wasn't interested in cutting corners.
The 8-year-old found it embarrassing to serve the ball underhanded, even though she lacked the arm strength to propel the ball over the net any other way. After all, she'd grown up watching the college players her mom coached smack the ball over the net with what looked like relative ease.
Cindy Willey had to explain to her already ambitious daughter that putting the ball in play was more important than the style of serve. And despite her desire to serve the ball with what she perceived to be the correct technique, McKenzie — nicknamed Kizzy — Willey decided winning was more important than style, at least until her arm strength caught up with her desire.
Now a senior at Lone Peak High School, Kizzy remains focused on doing what's necessary to improve — on and off the court. She refuses to skip a rep in the weight room, sit out of a sprint at practice or swing a little softer to save her arm for another day.
The powerful outside hitter prepares for competition with a ferocious intensity, and then she plays with the kind of reckless abandon that can cause her parents to beam with pride and cringe with worry — at the same time.
"Her dad started calling her 'KamaKizzy' after a game last year," said Willey, who is an assistant coach for the Knights. "She dove out of bounds for a ball, cracked her head on the floor, and got right back up."
Parents and coaches admonish her to be careful.
They advise her to pace herself.
Most of the time, to no avail.
"She's a pretty driven girl," said her mom. "She's not really that normal. She loves working out. There are times we have to say, 'You cannot work out. You have to give your body a break.' "
Kizzy has learned, albeit reluctantly, that her parents and coaches usually know best. And at the heart of that effort and focus is the desire to accomplish something great.
"She doesn't want to do things halfway," Cindy said. "She goes all out."
That includes off the court, where the outside hitter maintains a 4.0 GPA and shuns junk food (including soda) so she has the energy to compete with the country's best.
Her talent, drive and work ethic earned her a scholarship offer to Arizona State University, where she will play next fall for former BYU head coach Jason Watson, and a place on the USA High Performance team this summer. She was invited from a pool of 3,500 volleyball players to try out. She made the roster of 24 players and competed for the U.S. at the NORCECA Championships in August.
But what might be most remarkable about her accomplishment this year is that she made the U.S. High Performance Team despite playing with a broken finger.
"I thought I just jammed my pinkie finger," Kizzy said in an interview in August. "The pain zapped me pretty good."
That's because in addition to a fracture, she'd torn some ligaments. For five days she couldn't train, which for her, was like torture. So eventually doctors and her parents agreed to let her tape her hand and play through the pain.
"I did take Advil," she admitted with a slight laugh. "You do what you can to stay in the game."
Her hand is healed and now she's committed to helping the Knights return to the championship game after losing to eventual champion Davis in the state semifinals last season.
McKenzie Willey is the daughter of two former volleyball players who insisted their children be active when they were young. That led young Kizzy to try just about every game imaginable from gymnastics to baseball to soccer. But eventually, it was volleyball that won her heart, just as it had her mother's two decades ago.
Kizzy said that because she was essentially raised in a gym, there aren't too many places she feels more at home than a volleyball court.
"I was born and raised in volleyball," said Kizzy Willey. "My mom played and coached all her life. I was a gym rat ever since birth. I was raised in gyms."
Her mom said that's not an exaggeration. Both Cindy and Walt Willey played volleyball, and Cindy coached in various capacities since she finished playing at the University of Montana. She laughs when asked to compare her daughter's talent to her own.
"We've never compared her to me at all," said Cindy Willey, who at 5-foot-8 was the smallest middle blocker in the NCAA when she played. "If we did, I'd be embarrassed. She's 6-foot-1 and the game has evolved."
Club programs, as well as national development programs, have given volleyball players advantages that, just two decades ago, players didn't even dream of having.
Players are stronger, the game quicker and the sport more complex. It requires more all-around fitness and intelligence than ever.
"It's a real mental game," Kizzy said of why she enjoys the sport so much. "The particular position I'm on, outside hitter, you're the go-to girl, kind of the leader on the court. You have to step up and play all the way around. You need to be good at everything, and you need to be able to put a ball away."Comment on this story
And anyone who's seen the 18-year-old swing knows that when she says "put the ball away" she means sending it over the net with no hope it will be returned.
Competition is not an endeavor "KamaKizzy" takes lightly.
"It's a lot of pressure on us, but I like the pressure," she said. "I play with a lot of intensity, so it's the perfect sport for me. It's a good thing there is a net between me and the opponent."