Rick McLaughlin is hoping for a do-over now that the NCAA has granted his six star seniors an extra year of eligibility to return to the UCSB men’s volleyball team.
But his work during a pandemic-shortened 2020 season isn’t going unrewarded: The Big West Conference named him on Monday as its Coach of the Year.
Three of his seniors received first-team All-Big West honors: 6-foot-6 opposite hitter Randy DeWeese, 6-foot setter Casey McGarry, and 6-6 middle blocker Keenan Sanders. Roy McFarland, a 6-4 outside hitter, received honorable mention.
The four all-leaguers, along with fellow seniors Spencer Fredrick and Grady Yould, remind McLaughlin of the Class of 2011 which had come within a set of beating Ohio State for the NCAA championship.
“They all made a commitment together, like those guys had,” McLaughlin said. “They were all the same age and had worked their butts off for all four years. They loved coming into the gym every day and knew what it was going to take, just like those guys had.
“The makeup of the two teams was very similar, too. They were both very unselfish groups. Even the guys who’d started in the past but weren’t starting this year were all in.”
And then they were all out.
The third-ranked Gauchos, 14-2 and winners of eight straight matches, were about to bus to their March 12 match at defending NCAA champion Long Beach State when they got the bad news: The rest of the season was being cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The timing was so unfortunate,” McLaughlin said. “The guys had been getting better and better. No doubt, we had a shot at this thing.
“But some things you just can’t control … and other things are more important, for sure.”
He does have a Super Seven coming in with next year’s freshman class to build around star sophomores Ryan Wilcox and Brandon Hicks. But UCSB’s 12th-year coach knows the value of experience in collegiate men’s volleyball.
And the NCAA is giving McLaughlin a chance at keeping that all that experience for another year. The Division I Council voted to provide a blanket waiver for all spring-sport athletes to receive an extra year of eligibility. It left it up to each school to determine how much scholarship aid that athlete receives.
McLaughlin, who actually had eight seniors on his roster this spring, contacted each one about the possibility of returning for another year.
“All the starters said they’d like to see how it unfolds,” he said. “They were all interested.”
It’s a star-studded group.
McGarry was twice named as the Off the Block National Setter of the Week. The 6-foot senior ranked fourth in the NCAA in assists per set (10.59) and fifth in digs average (2.48) when the season abruptly ended.
“He reminds me a lot of our 2011 setter, Vince Devany,” McLaughlin said. “They’re both smaller setters and very similar leaders.
“Vince taught Casey a lot, too, when he was coaching here the previous three years.”
DeWeese, a converted setter averaging 3.7 kills per set from the outside, won back-to-back Big West Conference Athlete of the Week Awards before the season was curtailed.
McFarland was averaging 2.48 kills and Sanders was putting down 2.02 from the right side with the nation’s second-best hitting percentage of .521. Fredrick, the other opposite, was hitting .433.
But it was defense that made this UCSB team special. Its opponents were hitting just .178 — lowest in the nation. Yould, the Gauchos’ libero, helped them rank second in digs with 10.55 per set, getting 1.91 himself.
McLaughlin wasn’t sure his Super Six would be so eager to return when he called them about the NCAA waiver.
“They’re all such goal-oriented, looking-down-the-road kind of guys,” he said. “They’re all good students and lined up to graduate. They wanted to play all four years and not take a redshirt year.
“Some of them were already talking to pro teams. But with this virus going around, Europe might not be such a good place to go.”
It will take more than a wink and a nod from the NCAA for McLaughlin to get one more season with the Super Six. Men’s volleyball teams are allowed only 4.5 scholarships and he’s already committed his money to other players for next season.
“I hear the NCAA might allow a one-time waiver for schools to go over that limit, but I don’t know how much the university would be able to take that on and fund,” McLaughlin said.
UC Irvine has estimated that it would need an additional $410,000 to extend the scholarships of all its spring-sport seniors.
McLaughlin, for now, can do little but wait out the coronavirus at his parents’ home in Malibu.
“I’m still doing a little recruiting with what the rules allow,” he said. “Other than that, I’m just trying to stay in shape and stay healthy.
“We’re kind of away from everything here.”
It’s given him a lot of time to think about what might have been, and what still could be.
“I’d love to coach these guys forever,” he said.