Volleyball player Kayla Caffey not ready for a break

The former Mother McAuley star, who finished her seven-year college career in December, is back with Athletes Unlimited.

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Kayla Caffey

Kayla Caffey (28), a former Mother McAuley star, celebrates during the 2022 NCAA championship volleyball match against Louisville.

Texas Athletics

With an infectious laugh and flashing a broad smile, Kayla Caffey admitted she was “embarrassed” that her collegiate volleyball career spanned seven years “because I played for soooo long.”

But its culmination as an NCAA indoor champion with the Texas Longhorns allowed the Chicago native to, as she put it, “retire in peace, everyone. Goodbye!”

Her hiatus from competitive athletics didn’t stick.

Bringing a sunny personality that lights up a room and fast-twitch athleticism that illuminates the court, Caffey, 25, is back as a member of the 44-player roster for Athletes Unlimited’s third volleyball season that tipped off this weekend in Mesa, Arizona, with matches on the ESPN+ streaming platform and the ESPNU cable TV channel.

Between the end of the Longhorns’ title trail in December and the start of practice with AU last month, Caffey, a decorated high-school star for powerhouse Mother McAuley, played in the Puerto Rican pro league and worked as a substitute teacher at the Vanderpoel Humanities Academy elementary school on the Far South Side, where her mom also teaches.

Caffey jumped at the opportunity to sign with the professional Athletes Unlimited group, best described as an individual competition in a team-sports setting, in which four captains pick new teams in each of the season’s five weeks.

“I love AU’s format,” Caffey said. “There is a draft every week. It’s really player-driven, very different than college. They’re giving us the autonomy that professional volleyball athletes should have.”

The transitions made by Caffey during her college marathon at Missouri, Nebraska and Texas figure to pay dividends in AU, which includes six members of the U.S. national team. She gained scads of big-match repetitions playing in NCAA tournaments with Missouri (Sweet 16 in 2017) and Nebraska before being a contributor to Texas’ NCAA title last winter. A 6-foot middle blocker with high hops, Caffey was a second-team AVCA All-American in 2021 when the Cornhuskers were defeated in five sets by Wisconsin in the NCAA final watched by a record 1.18 million TV viewers.

Each passage through the transfer portal brought positives.

“Mizzou had given me all that it had to offer, and I needed to take that next step in order to become a better player,” Caffey said. “Big Ten volleyball is a whole-nother ballgame with the size and the speed, even like facilities, the coaching that you get and the competition that you play every week.”

Then came the jump from Big Ten power Nebraska to Big 12 juggernaut Texas. Caffey was “crushed” by the Cornhuskers falling three points short in the tiebreaking set of an NCAA title in 2021 and was reluctant to return for another year. But the script flipped when Texas went 28-1 and swept Louisville in the NCAA title match, with Caffey starting in the middle and leading the Longhorns in blocks with four.

“[Nebraska coach John Cook] had asked me to take my seventh season,” Caffey recalled. “I really did not want to take it, because I had already played for soooo long, I was embarrassed. But coming back with Texas and winning it on that stage just put the cherry on top. I finally felt happy retiring after seven years.”

A few months after the AU season concludes, Caffey will join the Grand Rapids Rise of the Professional Volleyball Federation, a startup venture that hopes to capitalize on the growing interest in the sport seen in metrics such as attendance and TV viewership.

Caffey spoke with unbridled optimism about playing pro ball at home.

“I had heard nothing, honestly, but negative things about overseas ball,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to play at that next level. So whenever I found out about AU and then there was PVF, yes! It’s a huge change in the volleyball landscape. I plan on doing the domestic route. I think all of the Americans are going to want to come home and just play on our soil.”

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