Sarah Wilhite completed her collegiate career as the national player of the year on a final four team.
STORY BY RACHEL TIMMERMAN
The National Player of the Year never thought she would end up where she is today. Five years ago, she wasn’t even sure she’d play Division I volleyball.
Though the awards from her banner year span every category, Eden Prairie native Sarah Wilhite didn’t realize her own potential until she started getting attention from top programs around her junior year of high school.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to go Division I, II or III – the journey just led me to Division I,” Wilhite said. “I think it just kind of happened as I developed as a player and I grew into my own body – I sprouted up a lot my freshman and sophomore years of high school.”
Once Wilhite grew into her early potential, there were a lot of schools interested in her. Her hometown university was among them, with a new leader building the Gopher program in his vision.
“The attraction [of Minnesota] was Hugh [McCutcheon] coming in the year before I got here, so knowing I could play under him was awesome,” Wilhite said.
As it did for many of her highly recruited teammates, Wilhite’s first season as a Gopher came as a shock. She developed into a standout player in high school. Now she found herself playing among a roster full of standouts.
“The Minnesota team was made up of the best, and I was competing against my teammates for a role on the team,” Wilhite said.
The young player had a hard time pushing past the mental struggles of competing for a starting position.
“My mental game was not very strong,” Wilhite said. “At the beginning, I was beating myself up over it. There was a lot of pressure that I put on myself through that, [pressure] about performing and meeting expectations.”
Head Coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose presence helped the future All-American decide to be a Gopher, wanted Wilhite to learn how to be comfortable with the moment of competition versus worrying about competing for a spot. He also wanted her to “understand that she could have a profound positive influence on the team and get her to own that.”
“By the time the starting team was more set, I was able to still have a role on the team by pushing people who were playing to get better, which I think I embraced more as the season got further in,” Wilhite said.
That evolution in outlook helped her adjust and learn in her new role. Playing behind All-American players like Ashley Wittman and Daly Santana for those first couple seasons helped strengthen her game, both physically and mentally.
“I had to go through those experiences [of not playing] to figure it out,” Wilhite said. “The huge shift for me was getting rid of the fear and pressures, and just being able to focus on the actual technique. Whereas if I would have played right away, I don’t know if I would have seen that barrier.”
That lesson has helped her every season since her rookie year. She’s found a way to benefit the team no matter her role, eventually making her way to a six-rotation outside.
“It’s definitely a different experience being out there all the time and being able to make a difference as people are coming in and out,” Wilhite said. “Hugh always said to me that not a lot of people understand the work that comes with being a six-rotation outside because you have to be able to do everything. I think it really pushed me in a positive way and got me to be the leader I knew I could be.”
Everyone may want that coveted all-around position, but many aren’t able to handle the pressure. Wilhite can, which makes her exceptional.
“People don’t understand the work it takes to get there and the weight you carry as being a six-rotation kid,” McCutcheon said. “The amount of emotional depth needed to withstand that constant battle is pretty significant – she was able to develop that.”
With such a decorated senior season, many are surprised to learn Wilhite never received a single national or conference awards during her previous three seasons at Minnesota.
Wilhite said the big switch that led to such a successful senior year was learning to just enjoy playing the game.
“[This season] I was kind of blocking out the noise a little bit more than I did my first three years,” Wilhite said. “Whether it’s the fans, or the media, or even just the expectations of coaches and teammates. There was definitely freedom that came with that, of just playing the game that I’ve grown up loving without any of the extra baggage that may come with the moment of competition.”
McCutcheon was able to see those changes in not only her play, but also in her everyday life.
“I'm really proud of her because I know where she started and what she was able to accomplish in the end," McCutcheon said. "She certainly made progress from year to year but the shift from junior to senior year was probably the biggest. It was phenomenal.”
At the end of her senior season, the volleyball program awarded Wilhite both its most improved and most valuable player awards – two things that are not normally won by the same person.
“The most improved means a lot to me because it shows where I’ve come from and how I’ve gotten better,” she said. “In the spring, I was making big shifts in my technique, whether it was passing, hitting approach or arm swing. The most valuable was just an honor.”
Former teammate Paige Tapp recognized the qualities that made Wilhite so deserving of both awards.
“She was always such a talented player, but the past year she owned every piece of that, rising to every challenge and excelling to be the leader and player that everyone knew she could be,” Tapp said.
Tapp also noted the physical struggles Wilhite had to overcome.
“She didn’t have the easiest path throughout her career,” Tapp said. “With a multitude of injuries and trials, she overcame every single obstacle and grew to become the strongest version of herself for her senior season.”
One challenge that most would view as a large setback came during the preseason of her junior year, when she tore an abdominal muscle.
But the optimistic Wilhite looks back on it as a humbling learning experience.
“The timing of it was inconvenient, but it helped me to break things down more,” she said. “During practice, I would just be doing approaches, working on my footwork, or working on different techniques that I’d be able to apply to when [I was] actually playing, which I think helped a lot.”
Without a role on the court, Wilhite strengthened her leadership skills off the court.
Wilhite's Honor Roll
• AVCA NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR
• ESPNW NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR
• BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR
• NCAA FINAL FOUR ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM
• NCAA REGIONAL MOST OUTSTANDING PLAYER
• FOUR-TIME BIG TEN PLAYER OF WEEK
“I now had a role of encouraging and being a good teammate, and helping the younger players,” she said. “I was still able to affect the team in a positive way.”
McCutcheon observed the impact Wilhite’s leadership had on the team.
"There were lots of people that led in different ways, but I think Sarah's style was more exemplary," McCutcheon said. “She wasn't just telling you to work hard, she was living it."
While she wasn’t the loudest on the court, Wilhite knew how to motivate her team and create energy.
“There are a lot of things that go into leading by example – not just execution but the way you handle yourself on the court, in competition, being composed when things get a little crazy,” Wilhite said.
And when things did get a little crazy on her home court, Wilhite had a secret weapon – her 11-year-old sister, Caroline.
The youngest Wilhite was part of the Volley Squad; a group of young girls that pass balls to players and towel off the court in between plays at home matches.
“She’ll run off [off the court] and yell ‘You got this, Saucey’ under her breath so she’s not screaming,” Wilhite said. “It’s special to have her out there, enjoying it right along side me and cheering for me, even though they’re not supposed to cheer. I think it has connected her and I in a way that’s special and different than most relationships.”
Leaving something behind for younger women to follow is a part of Wilhite’s current role. Though her time as a Gopher volleyball player has ended, Wilhite has returned to work at open gym sessions with the team. And she’s ready to be back.
“I have the opportunity to help the four freshmen outside hitters,” she said. “I’ll be able to influence and share my experience with them. I still have a role even when I’m not necessarily on the team, which is cool.”
McCutcheon is happy to have her back as well.
"I think she can really help our young team with how to manage the process," McCutcheon said. "It will be great to have her influence as a leader, as someone who has been through it successfully.."
But since she’s not technically on the team, that means more time for other things, like sleeping.
“It’s weird being on campus knowing that the team is getting up every morning to work out and I’m in my bed,” Wilhite said.
The physiology major is currently working toward graduating by next fall, with hopes to play volleyball professionally before eventually going to grad school.
“Grad school is a long-term goal, especially because playing overseas is definitely of interest,” she said. “I’m ready to move on to the next step, especially with the players who are playing overseas, it makes me want that a little more.”
Three Gophers from Wilhite’s class are all over the world playing professionally right now, leaving many options for where Wilhite could end up.
“I’d love to go somewhere in Europe, but I know there are really good leagues in Asia, so it’s kind of where the best opportunity is,” she said. “I haven’t had a ton of communication with teams yet, but hopefully that will play out as I get further along in this process of graduating.”
With volleyball no longer the focal point of her life, she’s able to cultivate other hobbies. But there’s one thing that continues to take up all of her time.
“School is kind of my hobby right now.”
Rachel Timmerman is a communications assistant for Gopher Athletics.