First to Five: Why We Play

By Mila Jasper

Every week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper tackles the biggest stories in the Big Ten in her column “First to Five”.

Last week, Minnesota welcomed the Wisconsin Badgers to Maturi Pavilion for a Thursday night match that would decide the top spot in the Big Ten. Before the match, the teams were tied with 14 wins and one loss each in the conference season. 

The contest promised to be one of the best of the season. The Gophers were looking for redemption on their home court after suffering their only conference loss of the season in Madison. The Badgers were looking for their first Border Battle win in Maturi Pavilion since 2014. 

These are the kinds of matches that players live for. These are the matches that fans remember. These are the matches that coaches spend all season preparing for. And one player on one point reminded all of us why that is. 

Airi Miyabe gets a lot of attention from broadcasters whenever she steps onto the court for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. She is from Japan, where she played with the Japanese National Team before moving to the states to play ball at the College of Southern Idaho. 

At CSI, Miyabe won a NJCAA championship in 2018. She was named the NJCAA Division 1 player of the year and the AVCA 2-Year College player of the year in 2018 as well. She joined Minnesota this year as a junior “in the hopes of winning a national championship!” (aren’t we all). 

Earlier in the season, Miyabe was a backup player, a sub for when the offense wasn’t up to snuff. So any time Miyabe entered the court, broadcasters tended to take a moment to talk through her non-traditional path to Minnesota volleyball. 

But due to an injury to transfer setter Kylie Miller, coach Hugh McCutcheon has switched to a 2-setter offense. Miyabe now rotates in for setter Bayley McMenimen when she rotates to the front row while setter Tamara Delonga enters for star opposite Stephanie Samedy in the back.

As she has gotten more playing time, Miyabe has only improved. And that process of getting better, of feeling good, and ultimately of putting your new skills to good use when it matters – that process is the best part about volleyball. 

In the fourth set against Wisconsin, Miyabe had a breakthrough in that process. The score was 14-10 in favor of the Badgers. A long rally, exactly the kind of a rally a top-10 match should feature, was underway. 

Minnesota had already taken three swings on the ball when finally, Delonga dove in to save a tip from outside Molly Haggerty. Taylor Morgan, Minnesota’s middle blocker, turned to set the second ball while Miyabe drove hard to put herself in position to attack. 

Morgan’s ball drifted right on top of the net, but a sloppy block left tons of daylight for Miyabe. What happened next was beautiful. 

On the broken play, instinct and muscle memory took over. Miyabe lined up, put the ball in her pocket and swung away, fearless. She wasn’t thinking about what she needed to do. No, she felt it. She felt the trajectory of the ball as an extension of her arm. And her arm told the ball to go down, fast.

It was a huge moment for Miyabe, and she and her team knew it. When she came down, she turned towards her teammates who were screaming, smiling, stomping; they mirrored the delight and power she felt in that moment right back to her. 

Senior outside Lexi Hart yelled “let’s go.” Delonga put an arm around Miyabe. Morgan pumped her fists. Libero CC McGraw’s hands went straight to her face as though she couldn’t believe the power she was witnessing. Miyabe’s hands went to her face as though she couldn’t believe the power she was feeling. 

It was a moment of pure, unadulterated joy. It was a big moment in a big match. It was perfect, and it was perfect neither because nor in spite of Miyabe’s unique route to Minnesota Volleyball. It was perfect because that feeling of delight when you realize “I did that” is universal.  

So even though that big point didn’t turn into a comeback win for the Gophers, that point mattered. It’s a point Miyabe will work to recreate not in substance but in feeling. And it’s a point that will inspire girls all over to take big swings, delighting in their power, too.

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