K-State's All-American Aliyah Carter leads a culture shift for Wildcat volleyball

In a climactic moment, a volleyball fiercely shuttles back and forth over the net before a roaring crowd. Positioned on the wing, Aliyah Carter of Kansas State keeps her eyes locked on the ball. In a swift and calculated motion, she bursts into action, propelling her 5'10" self mid-air, defying gravity with both agility and power. As she ascends to the 35-inch apex of her jump, time appears to halt, and the arena holds its breath. With impeccable timing, she unleashes a thunderous spike. The ball hurtles towards the floor, unstoppable, triggering an explosive eruption of cheers from the crowd upon impact. This marked the match-winning point, securing a sweep over the defending National Champion Texas Longhorns. An instant classic, it was the precise moment when the entire volleyball world was vividly reminded of the name Aliyah Carter.

In 1990, Joe Carter moved to Dubuque, Iowa to play basketball for Loras College, where he met his future wife Tassie. Joe, a sixth-grade science teacher, and Tassie, a nurse practitioner, would build their lives together by welcoming three children into the world. Those three have proven to be quite athletic. The oldest is Joshua. A gifted basketball player, he played at Upper Iowa, a NCAA Division II school. The middle son is Noah, who is currently in his senior season in basketball at Missouri. Then, there’s Aliyah.

While her name was indeed inspired by the singer, Aaliyah, Joe and Tassie preferred a different spelling. Aliyah Irene Carter was born on May 2nd, 2002, and immediately had a competitive spirit. Being the youngest child, let alone a female with two older brothers, she grew up watching them play, leaving her fueled with motivation. Around sixth grade, she began joining her dad and brothers at the gym several times a week. While a self-proclaimed, subpar basketball player, Aliyah found her own benefit from the gym. While her brothers played basketball, Aliyah focused on sprints and plyometrics. This hard work earned her the ability to jump high, and it began the path towards her own sport – volleyball.

Her drive, alongside the unconditional love and dedication of her parents, landed her at the Adrenaline Volleyball Academy, a prestigious, national volleyball club in Hiawatha, Iowa. Her parents dedicated several evenings a week to drive the three hour round trip to the Iowa Sports Center. Which of course, they always enjoyed. That was their idea of vacation – basketball tournaments for the boys, and volleyball tournaments for Aliyah.

It didn’t take long for her efforts in the gym and on the court to get recognized. In eighth grade, she was offered her first full ride scholarship from the University of Iowa. Her dad was elated, but Aliyah wanted to wait, in the very least, until her junior year of high school to make that type of decision.

She began high school at Hempstead High School, guiding the Mustangs to the state tournament her freshman year. Transferring across town to Wahlert Catholic High School, she joined their renowned, double-digit state championship winning team, winning two herself. She also won back-to-back state long jump championships, with both jumps being over 18 feet.

Her prep school success was noticed throughout the country as several colleges came calling. Taking an official visit with her mother to both Long Beach & Pepperdine Universities in California was a great experience, but it made her realize she was too far from home. Also, it lacked the midwestern collegiate vibe she had grown accustomed to.

Her very last college visit was to Kansas State University. It was love at first sight. The prettiness of the campus, combined with the feeling of home, left a lasting impression. Even the distance was attractive – nearly 500 miles on the dot, or eight hours. It was close enough for a weekend visit from her family, but far enough away to where she wouldn’t have been tempted to go home every weekend. On her visit, she was able to watch the wildcats play Texas at Ahearn Fieldhouse, and that sealed the deal. Everything about the Little Apple seemed to align with who she was as a person, and what she wanted out of her collegiate experience.

Her freshman & sophomore seasons were outstanding. The Big 12 concurred, honoring her with the title of 2020 Big 12 & American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Midwest Freshman of the Year, along with a myriad of other accolades such as unanimous First Team All-Big 12 both years.

Coming into her junior season, during the 2022 springtime, she felt great. She was confident & full of high hopes. She felt like this was going to be the best season of her life. She felt it in her jump. It was in her vision and ball placement. This was going to be Aliyah’s year.

Until it just wasn’t.

An all-conference volleyball player experiencing a slump can grapple with a mix of frustration, self-doubt, and tremendous pressure. For Aliyah, her slump felt like an infection she couldn’t shake. It overtook the mental aspect of her game. Overcoming an emotional hurdle like this requires resilience, determination, and a focus on improvement. Thankfully, an answer for the slump was just around the corner.

On December 27, 2022, K-State Director of Athletics, Gene Taylor, announced the hiring of Mansfield from the University of Washington. An assistant coach for 19 seasons, he was a proven winner. Mansfield played a part in nearly 500 wins, 18 NCAA tournament appearances, seven Final Fours, and a National Championship. He was the right person for the job, at the right time.

Since Kansas State volleyball began play in 1974, they never had an arena to call their own. Between Ahearn Fieldhouse & Bramlage Coliseum, both were shared with other sports. On September 1, 2023, that all changed with the opening of the state-of-the-art Morgan Family Arena. This cozy, volleyball-exclusive, 3,100 seat arena is exactly what K-State volleyball needed.  

Despite the positive changes, come the spring of 2023, and Aliyah still wasn’t quite past the mental block that plagued her junior season. After many months of self-reflection, she began to gain clarity with herself. Her coaches, at the same time, started to gain clarity with Aliyah.

At their very first practice together, Coach Mansfield reminded Aliyah she could jump high, as it was her true gift. He reminded her that she could indeed hit over anyone - she just had to believe she could. There was a belief in Aliyah unlike any she had ever felt - from every new coach on the staff, to her teammates. The only person that wasn’t believing in Aliyah, was Aliyah. It was in this moment; however, an All-American spirit was forged into steel.  

From the moment Jason Mansfield stepped on campus, his motto has been simple: Character, Compete, Connect. For example, what is your character like when you’re facing adversity? Are you willing to grind and compete every single day? How are you going to connect to those around you? Character, Compete, Connect.

This motto spoke loud and clear to Aliyah. It’s written on every whiteboard and preached daily. These three words helped set her on the path of falling back in love with volleyball. She realized it was about loving every part of the journey. The highs, the lows. The good, the bad, the ugly. Character, Compete, Connect.

Entering her senior season, she knew this was truly going to be her year. There was a new coach, a new motto, and a new Aliyah. Plus a new arena, and it was game on.

She led the team with 390 kills, and a 9-4 record at The Morg. The new barn saw set sweeps against ranked Texas, Iowa State & BYU twice. Also, for the third time in her career, Aliyah finished the season as a unanimous first-team All-Big 12 selection, and first-team AVCA All-Midwest Region.

On tournament Selection Sunday, K-State’s name was never called. Despite finishing 16-11 overall, with a 10-8 record in the Big 12, plus several sweeps over ranked opponents, the committee overlooked the Wildcats. This left Aliyah fuming. She needed a week to catch her breath, but ultimately, announced she would return for another season. Due to the pandemic, she still has a year of eligibility.

Fast forward a week or so after her return announcement, and she’s inside the Vanier Sports Complex, working on an essay. It’s December, and she’s on her final push toward graduation. Coach Mansfield gave her a call. When she said hello, he told her, “It’s coming out tomorrow, but I wanted to let you know that you’re an All-American!” Aliyah, with her signature, long, curly hair, leaned back in her chair and smiled. This has long been a big goal of hers, and she achieved it. An All-American volleyball player. It was proof that when she believes in herself, she can go as far as she can dream. Which is good news for K-State, because this team will go as high as Aliyah can fly!

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