Cary Academy's Mickayla Sanders: Wolfpack Family Cheering Liberty's Budding Star

  • Name: Mickayla Sanders
  • Age: 20
  • Organization: Liberty University, Cary Academy

Author: Patrick Kinas, creator.

(Photo: Liberty's Mickayla Sanders and former NC State Hall of Fame head coach Kay Yow, circa 2006.)

After missing the first eight games of the season with a balky back injury, there was no chance Mickayla Sanders would miss another moment. That moment came at the 16:25 mark of the first half when the reigning Big South All-Freshman team member and Clayton, NC native shed her warm-up jersey and reported to the scorer’s table. The horn sounded and she came onto the same court she did in 2006 when attending legendary NC State head coach Kay Yow’s basketball camp.

She grew up 21 miles from Reynolds Coliseum. Her mom attended NC State. Her aunt and uncles rarely miss a Wolfpack football game. Her young mentor as a budding teenage player was former NC State star Khadijah Whittington. She attended Kay Yow’s basketball camp. She was recruited by former Wolfpack head coach Kellie Harper. She thought NC State would be the only place for her.

As the substitution horn sounded at the 16:25 mark of the first half last week, she finally took the court at Reynolds Coliseum.

Mickayla Sanders was playing at NC State.

But Sanders was instead in the road uniform of the Liberty Flames.

The trajectory in sports is rarely linear.

The Pitch, Not The Court

Sanders athletic seeds were planted in another domain.

“I wanted to be next Mia Hamm.”

She grew up playing travel soccer as a goalkeeper, and was generally much bigger than the other kids on the field. Sanders still beams when recounting the two goals she scored from deep free kicks that landed in the box and bounced over the opposing goalkeeper.

Basketball never was her thing as a kid.

That changed in 2006, when at age 12, Sanders athletic lens broadened.

“Someone saw me at a Parks & Rec game and asked if I’d ever played AAU,” Sanders said. “I told them I wasn’t into it, and then about a year later, I started to get into the game.”

Sanders, who grew up a rabid Wolfpack fan, attended Hall of Fame NC State coach Kay Yow’s camp. Meeting Coach Yow and one of her star players was the tipping point when basketball became Sanders’ new focus.

“I was at their Elite Camp and saw one of the Wolpfack players helping out. It was Khadijah Whittington. She had the same build I did and even though I was always a lot bigger than the other girls at that age, I knew I wasn’t going to be freakishly tall. During camp, I’d follow her around and she was instrumental in me working on my game.”

“I started coming to all the games and watching her and the team play. I started going to private workouts and focusing on basketball. She sparked my interest in basketball.”

Sanders admitted that basketball wasn’t a natural talent. She had to spend hours in the gym working on her game.

“One of my dad’s friends saw me shooting, and I was terrible. I was shooting low, from the hip, and he told me to bring my shot up.”

“Once I did, he told me not to touch the rim.”

That was a key moment for Sanders. She began incorporating her new shooting mechanics with the goal to swish every shot, which would be essential if Sanders were to remain as a guard, although with her size, the temptation existed to move to the frontcourt.

“It was great for me that my coaches never forced me to be post player,” Sanders said. “I’m six-feet and pretty muscular, but I can be shooter. I keep working on my skills. Being versatile was a big thing for me growing up.”

That versatility was witnessed first-hand at Reynolds last week when Sanders became the central figure in a Liberty rally in the final minutes against the Wolfpack. Sanders banked in a contested shot on the block, then tied the game inside the final 30 seconds with a three-pointer from the sideline.

Nearly A Wolfpack

She was starring on the court that she thought she would call home for four years.

“My dream was to come to NC State,” Sanders said. “I took an unofficial visit, sat down in the offices, even tried on Kellie Harper’s national championship rings.”

She was recruited heavily by the Pack.

But then just as the recruitment process was heating up, it suddenly cooled.

To this day, Sanders isn’t quite sure what changed. But Sanders couldn’t afford to wait.

“I had schools like Elon, UNC-Wilmington and Liberty on my radar,” Sanders said.

But Sanders was about to head to the individual camp at South Carolina. In fact, she had signed up and was scheduled to leave in a few hours.

“I woke up and told my mom that I didn’t want to go to South Carolina’s camp,” Sanders said. “I want to go to Liberty’s.”

That’s when Sanders began to feel the tug by Carey Green and the Flames nationally recognized program.

“Liberty would always send pink (recruiting) flyers,” Sanders said. “Pink is my favorite color. But I didn’t even know where Liberty was.”

“But when (eighth-year assistant) Coach (Andrea) Bloodworth called my mom, she talked to my parents for hours. That showed me a lot.”

Liberty, known as one of the toughest mid-major women’s programs in the country, has a meaty resume which includes a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005 as a 13-seed, just the second time that’s happened in the NCAA Tournament.

“At Liberty, everyone is open and honest,” Sanders said. “It’s not a bootcamp. They have rules here to keep us safe and smart. They’re preparing you to go to work. Yes, you can’t wear sweatpants around campus, but I had rules growing up, so it’s not a big deal.”

Sanders, now breaking into her sophomore year, has both immediate and longer-range goals. The 20-year-old is a psychology major with professional basketball aspirations.

“I want to play overseas and I love to travel,” Sanders said. “I visited Chile on an exchange program and went with the team to Israel this past summer. I still need to work on becoming a better guard and wing player, and if I improve my handles, I’ll be a lot better.”

On the career front, Sanders has an equally noble pursuit.

“I want to work with people who have dealt with human trafficking,” Sanders said. “It’s a growing field and there’s a need to be addressed.”

As for playing at Reynolds Coliseum last week before scores of family, friends and former teammates at Cary Academy, Sanders was mature about the evaluation.

“It was weird playing there after wanting to come to NC State,” Sanders said. “But I was used to the arena, however it was still weird.”

So comfortably weird that Sanders nearly harpooned the Wolfpack, coming within an eyelash of pilfering a win from the school that once was Sanders’ destiny.

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