Sept. 6, 2017
By Brad Muller | More Features
After posting one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the South Carolina volleyball program, sophomore Mikayla Shields wanted to keep improving her game, and spending the summer training with the United States U19 national team helped her do just that. Shields went on to help Team USA win gold at the Pan American Cup in Costa Rica.
“I think I became a better player,” Shields said. “At least I hope I did. I definitely went in with the mindset that whatever I did, it would impact what I do here at South Carolina in a positive way. It’s been a good way for me to take a step back and learn what I need to do better. I learned that I need to really work on passing, and I really need to work on blocking. Those are crucial parts of the game, and in international play, you only get six subs, instead of the 12 that you get in collegiate play. So I have to make sure that my all-around game is great. It’s definitely something I look forward to improving upon.”
Shields earned SEC All-Freshman and AVCA Honorable Mention All-Region honors last year after leading the team in kills, breaking the South Carolina freshman record for hitting percentage in the rally-scoring era, and playing in all but one of the team’s 106 sets on the season. After trying out late last spring with the U.S. team, Shields was originally tabbed as an alternate.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t make the team outright at first, but I wasn’t totally disappointed because I was on their radar,” Shields said. “When I found out a couple of days later that I would be on the team, I ran up and down the halls screaming. I was so excited, elated and honored to be on the team.”
It was the most surreal feeling to put on the Team USA jersey. I mean, I’m representing my country!
South Carolina assistant coach Shonda Cole was the last Gamecock to play on one of the U.S. National Teams in 2005, and Shields would lean on her throughout the process.
“I am somewhat of a worry-wart,” Shields laughed. “Shonda is a mega-athlete. Going to her and having her talk from her experience really helps. She told me that ‘if we didn’t believe in you, we wouldn’t send you to tryout.’ So if she sees something in me, that’s a big confidence boost for me.”
After finding out she made the roster, Shields flew out to Costa Rica where the team only had three days to prepare.
“It was tough playing with these other girls for just a couple of days and then playing against teams with girls that basically lived together, trained together and went to school together.” Shields said. “It turned out to be one of the best experiences, volleyball-wise, that I’ve ever had. I learned a lot and had a whole lot of fun.
“It was the most surreal feeling to put on the Team USA jersey. I mean, I’m representing my country! Playing against other teams that represent their countries is a really cool thing.”
Shields noted that the experience was humbling at times and also fueled her hunger to compete.
“The toughest part was knowing that although I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to play, I had to be ready to play at any given time,” Shields said. “Coming from a program here where I feel like I am contributing a lot to the team, it was really hard to be watching from the bench sometimes and cheering on the team. It really made me appreciate more all the girls who do the same for me every day. I’d do it for them any day of the week. So I knew that I anytime I went in, I was going to go in like gangbusters with no fear. The best part is just getting on the court and getting a point.”
Now that she is well into her sophomore season with the Gamecocks, Shields is gladly incorporating what she learned over the summer.
“This experience has helped me become a better all-around athlete,” Shields said. “Being an athlete involves a mental aspect as well as the physical aspect. It’s about putting those together and getting the best of everything out of yourself. I’ve been doing well physically, but I can do better mentally in being more of a student of the game. Being with Team USA gave me a different view. This experience has given me a new-found hunger and drive to do well and to try to be great all of the time. I learned that you can always get better. I think I knew that, but this reinforced it. You never want to get complacent.”
Having enjoyed a taste of international play, Shields looks forward to another opportunity to audition to play for the United States next spring.
“Putting on the USA jersey and wearing all of the gear was great,” Shields said with a smile. “I walk around so proudly with that. I hope I get to experience that again.”
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