Volleyball: Skyla Whitaker excited for fresh, healthy start at Minnesota Crookston

Jacob Shames
Skyla Whitaker transferred from Bethune-Cookman to Minnesota Crookston, in part so she could better recover from a leg injury.

Make no mistake: Skyla Whitaker loved Bethune-Cookman.

She loved the intensity of Division I volleyball. She loved her teammates. She loved her coach, Brittany Williams. She loved the experience of attending a historically Black university. She loved the campus in Daytona Beach, Fla., and its proximity to the hard-packed sands of the World’s Most Famous Beach.

Whitaker, an All-State outside hitter at Ola H.S. in McDonough, Ga., accepted a full ride to Bethune-Cookman in 2017. You get the feeling that she’d do it again if she had the chance.

“It’s something I’ll cherish for a long time,” she said Friday. “Me going there, I don’t regret it at all, but it was time for me to move on.”

To Whitaker, Bethune-Cookman felt like a home away from home. But the seeds that resulted in her departure had been planted before she even stepped on campus.

The summer of 2018, she sustained a left leg fracture. At first, she was able to play through it: as a freshman, she was fourth on the team in digs and third in service aces and appeared in all 32 of the Wildcats’ matches. But two months before her sophomore season, she finally underwent surgery.

Whitaker played just 19 games last fall, and when she did get on the court, she wasn’t the same player. Her surgery recovery meant that she was mostly ground-bound: she had just nine kills, down from 69 the year before.

After discussing with her parents, she entered the transfer portal, doing so relatively late. When talking to her, it’s evident that the decision didn’t come easy. Bethune-Cookman was a dream come true, after all, and her role on the team was a key one. If the move was purely volleyball-related, maybe she’d still be in Daytona Beach.

Whitaker puts it like this: when you’re a Division I athlete, or want to become one,“you’re constantly going, going, going, every single day.” You don’t take breaks. This had been Whitaker’s life since she was 12 — but now, she had a titanium rod in her leg.

“It wasn’t the level of play, per se,” she said. “It was more so having to juggle all of my personal health problems, along with the super, super high high level of volleyball and academics all at the same time.”

Division II, to Whitaker, was the best balance. While the load on her body would be lighter, she’d still experience tough competition and academic rigor, and she’d have more time to really take care of herself.

She had never heard of Minnesota Crookston before head coach Sarah Rauen reached out to her, sending an email Whitaker described as jam-packed with information. She appreciated the level of detail, and was even more drawn in when she talked to Rauen on the phone.

“She was very inviting, very genuine,” she said. “She was pretty much on the fly. Any question that I had for her, she answered it right away.”

In getting to know Rauen and the rest of the Golden Eagles — who she also described as cordial and inviting — Whitaker sensed a family atmosphere. But it wasn’t just the team — it was the small-town environment (Whitaker describes herself as generally crowd-averse) and the University of Minnesota degree awaiting her in two years.

All of which led her to sign with UMC in late May.

Whitaker projects as an immediate-impact player, especially for a team that went just 4-24 last season. Her game is a little bit of everything — she loves defense enough to where she wouldn’t mind being a libero, but she packs plenty of punch offensively and in the service game. Her listed position at Bethune-Cookman, for that matter, was “Utility.”

She’s never been this far from home — Crookston is nearly 1,500 miles away from McDonough. That, and the winter weather. She expects these to be her biggest adjustments.

But right now, Whitaker says, her leg is in good condition. She’s in a place where she feels she can really keep it that way. And she still has two years of eligibility left, on a team that she’s already come to enjoy.

What’s some distance and a bit of snow compared to that?

“As far as school goes, volleyball, all of that, I adjust pretty quickly to different environments,” she said. “ And … (Crookston) just feels like it would be my second home away from home.”

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