From a young age, Milla Malik did whatever she could to stand out from the crowd.
Malik, a first-team All-State outside hitter in high school, was so undersized that she felt she needed to wear goggles to set herself apart from taller recruits. She also made business cards that featured an animated character of herself with her high school schedule on the back. Malik handed these out to college coaches to get noticed.
In a sport that heavily emphasizes size and power, Malik was concerned that her 5-foot-8 frame would overshadow her exceptional play on the court for Waunakee High School in Wisconsin.
Today, Malik doesn’t worry about getting lost in the shuffle.
Once seen as an undersized high school prospect, the sophomore outside hitter currently leads the Bulls with 362 kills and 404.5 points, good for third- and fourth-best in the Mid-American Conference.
Malik isn’t just surviving as an undersized outside hitter.
She’s using it as an advantage.
“Being shorter, I think I’ve created a great toolbox of different shots I can use,” Malik said. “I think that’s what’s helped me. I just can’t smash the balls like the girls that are 6-feet. I have to think about it more, and I think growing up being an outside [hitter], that’s helped me form a bigger toolbox.”
The average outside hitter in Division 1 is 6-foot plus.
Malik stands at 5-foot-8.
That lack of size gave Malik a chip on her shoulder. The sophomore computer science major claims she has to “play a little dirty” in order to compete with her taller competitors.
Malik also must be more cerebral in her approach to the game than her bigger opponents. Where other players rely on raw size and physical intangibles, Malik uses technical proficiency and a high volleyball IQ to outsmart her opponents.
“She’s undersized as a player, so she has to do things a lot cleaner, a lot more efficiently than a lot of [the] bigger players,” head coach Sean Smith said. “She puts a lot of effort into refining her technical skills and just keeping things mixed so she can’t do the same thing over and over and expect great results.”
Despite her height disadvantage, the Bulls still furiously recruited Malik when she was in high school. Malik also received interest from programs such as Oregon State, Florida Gulf Coast and Bucknell, because her skill was just too impressive to deny.
Malik verbally committed to Buffalo when she was just 15 years old as a sophomore in high school.
On the day Malik committed to UB, Smith says he and his staff knew they had a special player coming to the Queen City. That’s why they weren’t surprised when the Wisconsin native led the Bulls in kills (226) and kills per set (3.77) en route to being named an All-MAC freshman and second-team All-MAC in 2020.
“I felt that in the recruiting process,” Smith said. “A lot of people were like, ‘She’s too small to be the attacker you want her to be,’ and I disagreed. I felt like she would be a great fit for our program but also do a phenomenal job in the conference. We knew it beforehand, but when she got out there, and it maybe was the third match in last spring, we were like, ‘Okay, it’s [Malik’s performance] every bit we thought it was gonna be.’”
Now a sophomore, Malik has embraced the role of leader for the 2021 Bulls.
She was named a team captain prior to the season, and just like her transition from high school superstar to Division-I juggernaut went seamlessly, her coaches and teammates say she has developed into a natural leader for the Bulls.
“I naturally like to lead people,” Malik said. “It makes me feel good, just helping people. Whether that be on the court or just in life. And so when I do get to play the sport that I love, I just kind of naturally help.”
The best leaders lead by example, and it’s not only Malik’s support for her teammates that defines her leadership qualities.
She’s also proven to be a pillar of consistency for the Bulls and has yet to miss a set all season. Malik has played every second of UB’s 27 matches, serving as the reliable leader her teammates and coaches can lean on.
“[Malik’s presence] definitely relieves a lot of game anxiety,” sophomore rightside hitter Emma Gielas said. “It’s very calming knowing that there’s always that one person on the court that’s going to kind of hold everyone down. She’s on the court the whole time, so that’s really important that we have that one person out there that is going to be leading and communicating the whole time.”
And still, after establishing herself as not only the present but the future of UB’s volleyball program, Malik manages to remain humble through it all. She doesn’t entertain conversations about her individual glory or statistics; rather, she insists her stellar performance is a product of her teammates.
“My stats, my numbers, it all comes from my teammates,” Malik said. “If they didn’t get me the pass and the set I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. It’s all my teammates. I give them all the credit for me doing well.”
As an undersized high schooler, Malik wore goggles and created business cards to separate herself from the pack.
But she doesn’t have to wear goggles anymore, nor does she have to hand out business cards.
She’s now the captain and leading scorer for UB, and if the past two seasons are any indication, that won’t change anytime soon.
Anthony DeCicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found playing video games, watching ‘90s Knicks games and arguing with people on NBA Twitter at 3 a.m.