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    17 again: USC’s London Wijay is starring as the youngest kid on the court
    • October 17, 2023

    LOS ANGELES – London Wijay, for all intents and purposes, was not supposed to be sitting here, feet planted on the $275,000 volleyball court at USC’s Galen Center, the court that enticed her to make the most daunting decision of her young life.

    She was supposed to be walking the halls, instead, at Alemany High, 17 years old and clutching the pearls of a last year of youth like her own personal coming-of-age movie. Not here, not calling a collegiate dorm home, all of 135 pounds and choosing voluntarily to skip senior year of high school to compete on collegiate courts with girls four years older.

    What about senior prom? What about senior sendoff?

    Eh, she shrugs. Never really her thing.

    As she speaks this September afternoon, a stark reminder of her youth walks into the Galen Center. Utah volleyball, players older and bigger and wiser than her, coming to warm up for practice before USC-Utah volleyball in a couple days. She’s asked, looking across the court at them – does she still feel 17, now, when she’s going head-to-head against collegiate teams.

    “I love being the youngest – I love being the youngest,” Wijay repeats, grinning. “It’s underrated.”

    After Wijay made the decision in late July to commit to USC and simultaneously skip the last year of a standout career at Alemany High, she had just a few weeks – half the time for everyone else – to get acclimated before the Trojans’ first game. She barely played for the first two weeks of the season, and Wijay’s mood sagged, a homesick kid who felt in over her head.

    Why did I do this?

    And then Keller subbed her in in the middle of a tight third set against Illinois in mid-September, no time to prepare or even think, and Wijay instantly knocked a kill. And then another. A few days later, she led USC with 24 kills – on a team with AVCA All-American Skylar Fields – in a rivalry game against UCLA. On the year, albeit missing a couple weeks recently with a minor injury, the freshman is second on the team in points per set.

    “She’s fearless,” Keller said. “She legitimately is fearless. She’s not afraid of anything … and for that age, for her to have that ability is almost a superpower.”

    Naturally impulsive, too. Comfort zones don’t exist. Have never existed.

    Around 4 years old, Wijay would gather up rocks from the family’s backyard, put them in a little box, and bring them to club volleyball games coached by mother Morgan. There, she’d stroll the sidelines and peddle said stones for cash, hoodwinking innocent moms who couldn’t possibly say no. She’d take home upwards of $20, Morgan remembered.

    In high school, Wijay told her mother she was running for class president. Morgan, who was her coach at Alemany, knew who Ms. Popular was. Knew she wasn’t going to win. She didn’t.

    So the next day, Wijay came back and announced she was running for vice president. She didn’t win that either. She pivoted to secretary.

    “That’s London,” Morgan said. “She just puts herself in these environments, that’s, like, she doesn’t care about rejection. She’s a kid. She doesn’t care about failing.”

    And it was in such an environment in early June, at the airport flying out for a match with club team Munciana – a nationally-renowned program based out of Indiana – when Keller called to not only recruit Wijay, but propose she enroll right away.

    “At the beginning of it, we thought, ‘Brad, this is ludicrous,’” Morgan said.

    But it was an opportunity. And Wijay didn’t often say no to opportunity. So she made a decision – she’d boot-camp her way through online classes, see if she could finish over the summer to be eligible, and make a decision.

    At the end of July, sitting down with Keller and her parents, Wijay opened her mouth and the decision just kind of … slipped out.

    “It was like, ‘I came all the way here,’” Wijay said. “Might as well.”

    You have to be careful, Keller said, to make sure a kid’s makeup is appropriate for such a transition. And it wasn’t as if Wijay had raw, physical tools that made the transition seem natural; she was an outside hitter standing 5-foot-10, the shortest non-libero-or-setter on USC’s roster.

    But Wijay had been playing at 17-plus levels since she was 12 years old. Was a two-time CIF Southern Section Player of the Year at Alemany in a deep Southern California talent pool. And Keller wanted an all-around volleyball mind – someone with adept ball control who could, as mom-turned-high-school-coach Morgan said, play a clean game to enable players like Fields to “take bigger risks on swings.”

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    Keller didn’t quite anticipate, though, the kid’s ability to put plays away.

    “Every time you look up, and she’s already swinging, you’re like, ‘You’re not gonna score here, it’s gonna be like a zero or keep the ball in play or recycle,’” Keller said. “And she finds ways to score, and every time I turn around, I go, ‘I don’t know how she did that.’”

    She still feels young on this team, Wijay admits, back that September afternoon after practice. But she does young things. Just part of who she is. She gestures with jet-black-painted fingernails, a practice she started in high school, feeling it was sort of an “alter ego” that gave her strength.

    “I feel like my 17-year-old self is for sure in me, and I don’t think it will leave until I actually start to grow up a bit.”

    Makes sense. She is still 17, after all, believe it or not.

    ​ Orange County Register