McLaughlin digs deep to reach collegiate dream
He never set a 6-foot-5 outside hitter or served an ace in a high school game, but Shawn McLaughlin is going to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo., on a volleyball scholarship.
The South Tahoe High senior didn’t permit the absence of a volleyball program in his mountain community limit his dreams.
While his classmates walked outside to Viking Bowl or into the Blue Gym to pursue their athletic passions, a patient McLaughlin sat through the sometimes treacherous three-hour winter commutes through the Sierra to the Bay Area to reach his playground of hope.
“A lot of people don’t know why I play volleyball. I don’t know why, I just like it. Someone who goes on to Major League Baseball and you ask them why they like baseball, it’s because they like the sport,” McLaughlin said. “Volleyball is a team sport and it’s very fast-paced.”
Who better than Lindenwood men’s and women’s coach Ron Young to understand McLaughlin’s unique situation.
Young’s sons, Zach and Josh, both played for their dad at Lindenwood following a nonexistent high school career. Like McLaughlin, they became recognized though club teams.
“I suspect Shawn is the same gym rat like my kids were,” Young said. “Mine have been around volleyball since they could walk.”
Volleyball became McLaughlin’s religion at 7 as he followed his mom, Sue, like a puppy to her rec team practices.
“He would come out on the court and demand that we make some time for him to practice,” said McLaughlin’s dad Dan. “He was so annoying about that. He’d tell us, ‘I need to practice, I need to practice.’ And we’d tell him that he wasn’t on the team, but he’d say, ‘I will be.'”
McLaughlin’s passion for volleyball intensified in 1996 when he attended Dan’s Whittell High girls’ volleyball practices.
“He was exposed to it so early and he enjoyed it,” Dan said. “He also found that volleyball is a close-knit community – they’re not a lot of us running around – and he played for the purity of the sport.”
Soon McLaughlin began practicing with the girls teams at Whittell and South Tahoe high schools. He’d even arrive well ahead of Dan’s club team’s to work on his skills. Eventually, he joined adult recreation teams and participated in grass and beach tournaments.
“Any chance he got, he’d take advantage of it,” Dan said.
Ultimately, Dan and Sue had to make a decision whether their son’s volleyball goals could be reached without participation in a high school program.
“We considered changing schools on several occasions, but it didn’t work out that we could move,” Dan said. “So we had to put our lives on hold to help him follow his dream.”
Instead, Dan and Sue found I Dig, a volleyball club in Walnut Creek, to nurture their son’s love for volleyball. The club offered McLaughlin everything that had been missing – a team made up of boys his own age.
“My dad let me into volleyball and club volleyball opened the door,” McLaughlin said.
But the travel took a toll on the family. Twice weekly Dan would drive his son to practices 3 hours away. McLaughlin’s grades slipped during his sophomore year because he was unable to do his homework.
Dan also saw less and less of Sue and their daughter, Shaylene.
“He eats, breathes and sleeps volleyball,” said Steve Chan, McLaughlin’s former club coach. “He has a lot of enthusiasm and there aren’t too many kids out there that have his kind of enthusiasm for volleyball.”
To cut the weekday commutes in half, McLaughlin eventually joined the Sacramento Volleyball Club coached by Steve Neptune, a former professional beach player.
“That kid gets it,” Neptune said. “He doesn’t have all of the ability, but what he lacks in ability, Shawn makes up for in brains. He’s gifted.”
At 6-1, McLaughlin is too small to trade smackdowns with 6-8 and 6-5 front-line players that dominate the collegiate game. But he brings many intangibles to a team that the stars just can’t provide.
“The best way to say it is he just has knowledge for the game,” Young said. “He already has coaching experience on the junior side and he has skills as a defensive player.
“We’re really happy he made the decision to come join us and I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to coach him.”
Lindenwood will cover tuition and lodging, meaning $14,300 per year. It’s a long way to go to play volleyball, but McLaughlin knows that routine.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m OK with it,” said McLaughlin, who also entertained a scholarship offer from South Hampton, N.Y. There was also interest from LaVerne, Hawaii and UC Santa Cruz.
Young said McLaughlin’s relocation so far from home won’t be unusual.
“We’ve had players from the Bahamas, Hawaii and Canada,” he said. “Players from a great distance away kind of bond together and become a second family. They have times when they are a little homesick, but the support of our team helps them through that.”
Besides, McLaughlin wants to find out how good he can become.
“If I’m there practicing every day, I don’t know how good I can be. It’s a big question mark,” he said. “I just need to be more consistent. When I’m on, I’m really good and when I’m off, I’m really off.”