Changing sports led Rya McKinnon to athletic success

Courtesy of Rob Knox, Howard Athletics Consultant

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rya McKinnon went from one sport in which her height was a potential liability to one where it’s a treasured asset.

After all, there aren’t many 5-foot, 11-inch gymnasts.

However, it’s a perfect height for volleyball where the Howard freshman outside hitter has found a home as a fearsome attacker.

“I was pretty sad at first,” McKinnon said. “Gymnastics is a hard sport. I am very glad that I stopped playing. I was too tall for gymnastics. Even on the volleyball court, I am not even that tall for an outside hitter.”

A stellar student, McKinnon has been a tower of power ever since she started playing volleyball in the 3rd grade. The volleyball world is forever grateful that McKinnon’s cousin, Bria Smith, got her interested in the sport. McKinnon’s parents, LaShana and Ronald, did the rest from there by driving her to and from numerous tournaments, matches, and showcase events.

McKinnon has enjoyed lots of success since she began playing on the high school varsity team as an 8th grader. She was named the 2020-21 Gatorade Alabama Volleyball Player of the Year. In addition to the athletic accolades in high school, McKinnon made her mark in the classroom. She was a member of National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, and National Spanish Honor Society.

Now, leading the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) in kills per set (3.21) and points per set (3.71), the affable McKinnon has been a vital cog in Howard’s championship machine. The Bison earned a share of the MEAC regular season title and finished with 19 victories.

Image via Rodney Pierce

The fun begins for McKinnon as she will help second-seeded Howard begin its quest for its seventh MEAC crown in eight seasons when it meets seventh-seeded Morgan State at Delaware State’s Memorial Gym on Friday at 5:30 p.m. Howard beat Morgan State by 3-0 scores in both matches this season.

McKinnon is rolling into this weekend following consecutive matches of 23 and 22 kills, respectively, both against Norfolk State where she hit a combined .493 and averaged 6.4 kills and 2.4 digs per set.

The kills are career-highs for the computer science major from Bessemer, Alabama, the same hometown as the legendary Bo Jackson, who made his mark in the late 80s and 90s as a transcendent two-sport star in the NFL and MLB. The 23 kills are the most in the MEAC this season.

McKinnon is an elite performer who was recruited by Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schools, one of which is ranked in the top nationally in the latest poll, before making the great decision to attend The Mecca.

“I wanted to go to school out of state, play for a competitive volleyball program at a school that had good academics,” McKinnon said. “Howard checked all those boxes. Also, I want to be a role model for other Black kids that you can attend a HBCU and have success and you don’t always have to go to a predominately white institution to be the best and win championships.”

McKinnon has found her groove after adjusting to the faster pace of college volleyball and competing against athletes who are taller than she is. McKinnon has had to adjust how she attacks, and the results have been great. She is entering this weekend’s MEAC Tournament with 15 matches of double-digit kills, including six in a row.

Competing with a calmness that chills opponents and using a changing medley of shots that befuddles opponents, McKinnon is also fourth in the MEAC in hitting percentage (.326) and eighth in aces per set (0.38). According to Howard volleyball head coach Shaun Kupferberg, McKinnon is also second nationally in hitting percentage for a left-side outside hitter.

“I’ve only had her in the gym for a short time, but her ability to take coaching and immediately make adjustments is special,” Kupferberg said. “Her mind and body are so connected that she really understands when a small movement is off and can correct it. We are trying not to overwhelm her in her first semester, but this spring will be a big opportunity for her to grow and develop.”

Despite being named MEAC Rookie of the Week five times and MEAC Player of the Week twice, McKinnon doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels. She is focused and determined to become the best volleyball athlete she can be. The Alabama native was named MEAC Rookie of the Year as well as Player of the Year this week – a feat that has not been achieved since 2002.

“It’s always the little things so for me, it’s staying in the gym for an extra few minutes, watching film, and getting the right amount of sleep,” McKinnon said. “What has also helped me this year has been the crowd and community support we get. It’s crazy, fulfilling, and welcoming. It fuels you knowing that you. I have that type of support system. It has made playing here more fun. We love when the crowd goes crazy off a point. I love these moments.”

Being in the nation’s capital has opened McKinnon’s eyes to numerous possibilities. She has become a lot more interested in fashion and posting her latest fits onto her social media platforms. McKinnon loves cooking pasta and taking photos. She also enjoys getting her nails done. One of her favorite classes is classical mythology.

“My first time coming here to Howard, it felt like home,” McKinnon said. “Everybody wanted to see you succeed. To see people who look like me and are very successful was inspiring. I love it here and have enjoyed my first season.”

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