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Camryn Turner: An artist, a prophet & an All-American?

KU volleyball team's junior setter followed a clear path to stardom with the Jayhawks

14 min read
Kansas volleyball setter Camryn Turner works on her hands during a recent practice at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena. [Chance Parker photo] 

There’s a sheet of paper that lives in a keepsake box at the Turner house in Topeka, and what’s on it explains an awful lot about how Camryn Turner ended up at KU.

The drawing came from a career day project assigned to Turner back at Topeka’s Seaman High. The task was simple: Create an illustration that demonstrates where you see yourself in five years?

At the bottom of the piece of paper, there’s a volleyball net with a ball clearing the top of it. To the right, there’s a building that represents the University of Kansas.

At the top middle, there’s a Kansas volleyball scoreboard that shows the home team winning 19-15, and in the upper-left-hand corner there’s a banner hanging from the ceiling with the words “All-American” and “Camryn Turner” on it.

The drawing that KU setter Camryn Turner created for a career day project in high school that accurately predicted her future up to this point. [Contributed photo]

While it remains to be seen what becomes of her All-American aspirations, the rest of those images already have become a reality.

A starting role. A lot of wins. And a dream come true.

“I drew KU, a volleyball, the jersey, everything,” Turner told R1S1 Sports before the start of the 2023 season. “And now it’s like, ‘Wow. I’m doing what I wanted to do.’ It’s just insane. I still have no words for it. It’s very amazing.”

Turner’s mother, Calli, is moved to tears when she talks about that piece of paper and her daughter’s journey. While Turner lives the emotions during every rally and each day, her mom first felt them full-bore at an NCAA Tournament match against Creighton at the end of Turner’s freshman year.

“I think that was just like that moment of ‘Holy cow, she’s here and she’s doing this and she’s really contributing and being successful,’” Calli told R1S1. “It was just so amazing to see.”

Jayhawk dreams

To understand what becoming a Jayhawk meant to Turner, one has to go back a few years earlier, to her middle school and high school days, when Turner looked up to the Kansas volleyball players and often pictured herself playing on the same court they did.

There were countless days attending KU camp in the summers, and that’s where the Kansas coaching staff got its first glimpse at Turner’s skills. There were even nights when she watched the Jayhawks play in the very gym she hoped to one day call home.

Those experiences created a clear vision for her future, and one particular night, in 2016, Turner became inspired to transform her dreams into a plan.

“I remember we were sitting over there,” Turner said, pointing to Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena’s north bleachers. “Old Horejsi, they played Texas and they won. I just remember watching and being like, ‘Wow. I want to do that. I want to be her.’”

The “her” Turner referenced was former KU All-American setter Ainise Havili, who helped lead KU to a Final Four and that win over Texas during the Jayhawks’ Big 12 title season in 2016. And even though the current KU junior has taken Havili’s spot in the setter’s seat at Kansas, she’s still wowed by Havili and what she accomplished during her days as a Jayhawk.

“Even now, when she came back for the (jersey retirement) banner reveal (in 2022) and I saw her, I just started crying,” Turner remembered, almost crying again in the moment and laughing at herself for doing so.

KU setter Camryn Turner listens to head coach Ray Bechard during a recent Jayhawks volleyball practice. [Chance Parker photo]

The fact that Turner is now walking the same path that Havili once did is no coincidence. For three consecutive years during high school, Turner was one of the players in a small group of summer campers that the KU coaching staff asked to stick around to scrimmage with the current Jayhawks. That meant everything to Turner and only strengthened her desire to one day be a Jayhawk.

“You always picture that you can play with those girls,” Turner said. “But when you’re actually doing it, it was like, ‘Wow, I want to do this. I want to be there. This is how I want my future to look.”

The beginning

Playing with older girls was nothing new for Turner. Dating back to her earliest days in the sport, she always played up a grade level or two.

She got her start at age 8, when she joined the Junior Bods club team in Topeka, coached by current Washburn volleyball coach Chris Herron.

Herron was the first coach to offer Turner a college scholarship — as early as age 10 he used to tell her that he was going to make an official offer as soon as the rules allowed him to do so — and by the time she chose KU, Washburn was the only other program to extend an offer.

That baffled KU coach Ray Bechard, but even 100 other offers probably would not have made much of a difference. Turner had her sights set on becoming a Jayhawk, and everything she did from age 8 on helped make that a reality.

She started her career as a libero and quickly began to excel on defense. Perhaps her earliest introduction to drills had something to do with that.

“People would always ask us, ‘Gosh, how much do you work with her,’” Calli recalled of her daughter’s early days in the sport. “And we were like, ‘We don’t. She just goes to basement and we hear thump, thump, thump, thump.”

That sound was the result of Turner passing a volleyball to herself off of the walls in their unfinished basement. For hours. On an almost daily basis.

There were other homemade drills, too. Often, when the family settled in for a night in front of the TV, Turner sat on the floor in front of them and would set the ball around the room and ask her relatives to throw it back. They always did, no matter how many times it happened or how much it interrupted their favorite shows.

Upstairs, she found a way to use her brother, Jaylen — a sophomore guard on the Baker University basketball team — in her drills. With Turner sitting at the top of the stairs and Jaylen at the bottom, Turner would rip spikes down the chute to see if he could return them.

Playing up a couple of grade levels forced her to think the game as much as play it, and her intelligence and feel on the floor soon started to match her athleticism.

“By her playing up for all those years and having to compete against all of those older kids, she really developed a tremendous volleyball IQ,” Herron told R1S1. “Even back then you could tell that she was going to be something special.”

After five years with Herron, Turner began playing with the club team, Shazam, led by head coach Stuart Johnson.

Like Herron, Johnson saw something special in Turner right away. But his pairing with her during Turner’s seventh-grade year was not the first time he had heard about her.

See, Turner’s mother and Johnson’s wife, Kari, had previously worked at the same preschool that Turner attended, and her advanced athletic skills caught Kari’s eyes back then.

Johnson’s wife came home one day and told her husband that there was this little girl on the playground dribbling a basketball with each hand without looking down. Johnson remembered his wife telling him that day, “When she gets older, you’ve got to coach her in volleyball.”

Fast-forward nine years later, and Johnson received a phone call from Calli, who was in search of someone to coach her daughter.

“When I got that call, I immediately remembered back to when Camryn was 3 or 4 years old,” Johnson told R1S1. “I thought about the offer for about three seconds and said heck yes. She’s a phenomenal athlete. The coordination and the natural balance and natural athleticism, she’s got it. Always has.”

The start of something big

After linking up with Johnson, Turner quickly began to make a name for herself in the Kansas City area.

Shazam’s first tournament in KC featured 36 teams. Turner’s squad was seeded 35th. Yet, despite the low ranking and a daunting first match against the perennial powerhouse KC Mavs program, Turner’s crew came away victorious.

“The buzz in that gym was electric and everyone was going, ‘How’d they do that,’” Johnson recalled. “Well, a big part of how we did that was Camryn Turner. Every game she goes into, she believes she has a chance of winning. And it’s infectious.”

Johnson's team motto and the phrase with which he ends every email he sends reads: "Play Hard, Play Smart, Have Fun!"

"Camryn embodies that," he said.

During her junior year of high school, in a matchup with elite club KC Power, an even more important moment surfaced for Turner.

A week before the match, Johnson asked her where she wanted to go to school and, without hesitating, she said KU. So, Johnson sent Bechard and KU assistant coach Billy Ebel a quick message but did not immediately hear back.

Unaware of the message and unfazed by any thoughts about her future, Turner went nuts and led Shazam to victory in two sets, 25-20, 25-20.

“Camryn Turner put on The Camryn Turner show in that one,” Johnson said. “After that, Ray came up to me and said, ‘What position does she want to play?’ And I said, ‘You know, Ray, she’ll play wherever you want her to play and she can do whatever you need her to do.’”

The next weekend, Turner took an official visit to KU for a basketball game and the rest is history.

Current KU junior Caroline Bien, who grew up in Kansas City and was in the same class as Turner, played for a rival club and on the path to becoming teammates with her at Kansas, said she was "definitely" aware of who Turner was back in their club days.

"When you saw her play in high school, when she wasn’t this five-star recruit, you just saw an athlete," Bien told R1S1. "She's so athletic and she makes plays that you don’t think are even possible. She was a little bit of a deer in the headlights coming to KU, but now she’s just a star.”

Volleyball it is

Long before Turner arrived at KU, she reached a crossroads in her athletic career.

Growing up in an athletic family, Turner always played everything. Basketball and volleyball were her two best sports, but she was skilled in just about everything.

Her father, Art, played basketball at Emporia State and her mother, Calli, played volleyball and basketball in high school before tearing her ACL her senior year. Turner also had an uncle who played basketball at Bethany College and a cousin who played football at Kansas State.

“I’ve just been surrounded by athletes my whole life and they always knew exactly what to say or how to push me and that was always special to me,” Turner said. “They always knew what to do because they had already lived it.”

None of them quite knew how difficult it was for Turner to begin to phase basketball out of her life, though. Even she struggled to grasp that. But she knew it was necessary for her to truly be happy.

Turner said her freshman year of high school was when she first realized that volleyball was her true love. But she kept playing basketball anyway — in part to be with her friends, in part because she was good at it and in part because she wanted to do it for her dad.

Camryn Turner sets a ball during a live-action drill as her teammates follow the play. [Chance Parker photo]

After her sophomore year of high school, following another season with club team Ohlde Elite, Turner decided to quit. She loved the program, she loved playing with her friends, but she hated going to practice.

“I literally would cry,” she said. “I’ve never felt that way about volleyball. Ever. I finally made a pros and cons list. It was like, I’m with my best friends, so that was fun, but, also, I’m with my best friends and I still don’t want to be there. That really told me a lot.”

That list marked the end of her club hoops career. Turner said it was “an amazing feeling” to commit herself fully to volleyball, and her dad said his main concern was making sure his daughter knew that the only thing he cared about was her happiness.

“You could just see that her heart was with volleyball,” Art told R1S1.

Turner wound up playing with her high school team through graduation to maximize time with her friends. But the demands of that were far less than club basketball, and the compromise allowed her to focus most of her senior year on volleyball.

There were, however, more tears.

Turner played basketball like she plays volleyball. As a point guard, she always enjoyed creating for others and getting her teammates going. But her talent was such that her coaches often asked her to score.

Art said there were countless car rides home after Turner would score 20-25 points in a game that ended with a flood of emotion.

“She’d break down crying and say, ‘I didn’t want to do that. I wanted everyone to do well. That was just how it happened,’” Art recalled while laughing at the memories. “It was moments like those that made me realize she made the right decision to focus on volleyball. And I’m so proud of her. I’m in awe of her and everything she does out there.”

Early doubts

Despite her advanced skills, when Turner first arrived on KU’s campus, she lacked the one thing that nearly everyone around her already had — belief that she could play at the Big 12 level.

“A little bit of me was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do this; they see it in me,’” the 5-foot-8 setter said. “But everyone else was like, ‘There’s so many other Camryn Turner’s at the D1 level’ or ‘You’re short.’ And then it was like, ‘Can I do this?’”

Those doubts made the idea of making an immediate impact tougher for Turner. But they also set her on a path that would be filled with high highs and incredible support along a journey that is still far from complete.

Most of that support has come from those closest to her — her family, her KU teammates and the KU coaching staff. And despite her success and obvious talent, that group continues to try to inspire Turner, KU’s lone 2023 preseason all-Big 12 honoree, to believe in herself.

“It just has always been her personality to defer to others,” her mother said. “We always wanted her and her brother to be humble and kind and always put that first. And I think she’s done that, sometimes to a fault. To this day, you’re always trying to tell her, ‘You’ve made it, you are here’ and that she should enjoy that and be proud of it.”

Camryn Turner passes the ball with a teammate during a recent Kansas volleyball practice at Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena. [Chance Parker photo]

You’d never pick up on the doubts and insecurities by watching her play. The perfect blend of an assassin in one moment and a happy-go-lucky ideal teammate the next, Turner is the picture of joy on game nights.

“The Camryn Turner you see on the court is exactly who she is all the time,” said Ebel, the KU assistant coach who Turner says knows her better than she knows herself. “She’s very nice, she’s outgoing, she’s fun to be around and she always looks like she’s having a good time.”

Players on the other side of the net may not applaud all of those traits, but, as Ebel says, “they respect her because she’s a fierce competitor.”

“It’s one of those things where even our opponents will look at her and go, ‘That’s a bad girl,’” Ebel told R1S1 before a recent KU practice. “But then she smiles and they go, ‘But, man, I really like her.’”

Added Bien: “I love how competitive she is. You can see it when she plays, but being next to her on the court, you’re never worried, you’re never anxious. She just wants to win, and you know she’s never going to take a rep or a point off.”

Rolling along

While Turner’s first two seasons as a Jayhawk were the culmination of a dream come true and the foundation for a future without limits, the position she finds herself in today is dramatically different than what she experienced during her first few matches as a freshman.

Back in 2021, Turner did not play a single point in the team’s first two matches of the season in West Lafayette, Indiana. After one of them, Turner sat on a bench with her parents outside of the team hotel, reflecting on what was happening.

There was no poor-me vibe nor any kind of search for someone to blame. Instead, Turner recalls her parents telling her, simply, “OK, what do you need to do to show them what you can do or how can you better yourself?”

Moments later, while on his nightly walk, Bechard passed by the Turner family and sensed something was off. Without hesitating, he approached the bench and told them, “In order for us to be the team we want to be, we need her out there.”

It was exactly what all three of them needed to hear in the moment, and the message was made better by the way each of them embraced it.

“My parents were like, ‘He’s never lied to us about anything; good or bad, he’s always been straight-up with us about everything,’” Turner recalled. “So, it was just like, ‘OK, I trust what he’s saying.’”

Added Calli: “It was exactly what she needed. They did have a plan and she wasn’t quite where she needed to be yet, so, from there, it was all about dive in, work hard and believe in us because we believe in you.”

Bechard said he noticed a difference in his freshman setter as soon as the next day. And by season’s end, she was in the starting lineup and running the offense for KU’s march to the Sweet 16.

“I just had to transfer my coaching philosophy to her,” Bechard told R1S1. “And once we were able to do that, I pretty quickly saw her embrace it and saw a significant change.”

Since then, it’s been a wonderful ride for the talented setter who plays every point with a smooth blend of fire and fun.

After sliding into a starting role from the outset a season ago, Turner led the Jayhawks to another NCAA Tournament win in 2022.

And this year, now that she’s an upperclassman and completely comfortable with who she is and what this team needs and wants her to be, Turner is open to allowing herself to go to an even higher level.

“My freshman year, I really was trying to be someone that I wasn’t,” she said. “I’ve always grown up super, super-competitive, but when I got here, I was trying not to step on anyone’s toes and be happy no matter what the outcome was. But that’s just not me. This year, even just in two-a-day (practices), I started giving that, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go. Let’s turn it up.’ And it’s been a lot of fun.”

That mentality and the talent around her led the Jayhawks to three-set sweeps in their first two matches of the season, and will be a key part of a tough matchup at home against Big Ten power Purdue on Thursday night.

It’s also the kind of mindset that has Herron, her former club coach, believing that Turner is on the brink of completing the final part of the prophecy that her high school career day drawing has become.

“She’s so mature and so comfortable in her own skin and she just knows herself so well,” Herron said. “I think you see that now in the way she plays. I was shocked when she didn’t make at least an honorable mention All-American team last year, and there’s no reason she can’t be an All-American this year.”

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