Nov. 5, 2013
Other Pete LaFleur Features For 2013-14
Debbie Brown - A Volleyball Life: Then And Now
By Pete LaFleur, `90
Each year, it's a different Bible verse, or a thematic, inspirational word. Or some years, it's both.
For Notre Dame senior volleyball player Andrea McHugh, her strong and lifelong faith goes hand-in-hand with her never-ending athletic pursuit for "competitive greatness," one of the core tenets in John Wooden's Pyramid of Success. McHugh's father Jeff is an ardent disciple of the legendary former UCLA basketball coach, with those sports philosophies rubbing off on Andrea from an early age.
During her junior season in 2012, McHugh's inspirational word was "freedom" and she scrawled those seven letters on her hand before every match. "I had done a summer internship with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and we focused on learning how to play with freedom, strengthened by God's love," says McHugh, a second-year co-captain for the Irish.
A few months after the conclusion of that 2012 season, the Notre Dame volleyball team was facing a conundrum. The team's starter at the unique libero position - essentially a more advanced defensive specialist, a position that made its debut in the collegiate game a decade ago - had decided to transfer. The team's ultimate solution was to have McHugh, a lifelong outside hitter, make the transition to libero.
The word libero (most commonly pronounced LUH-bare-0h and sometimes LEE-bro) is an Italian term meaning "free." That coincidence in nomenclature was not lost on McHugh, whose combination of faith and leadership allowed her to embrace the new challenge heading into her current senior season.
McHugh's classmate and fellow co-captain, Maggie Brindock, has an integral on-court bond with the team's libero, as the setter that runs the Irish offense.
"Andrea is both a vocal leader and a leader by example - there is never a time during practice or a match where I cannot hear her voice, it's almost calming," says Brindock.
"She is constantly encouraging the team while also keeping her head in the right place to perform at the highest level. People look to her for words of wisdom. The girls on the team believe in Andrea and know she has everyone's back."
Family: Faith Over Feud?
The middle child of Jeff and Lori McHugh, Andrea was born into a house divided, sort of the Hatfields and McCoys of southern California college football fans.
"My mom's side of the family is diehard USC fans and my dad's family are all big-time UCLA fans," explains the current Notre Dame student-athlete, for years torn between these warring factions.
"When USC and UCLA play in football at the end of every season, that's where the feud comes in. The opposite family members basically just don't talk on those days."
Lori Hanna McHugh's side of the family includes Andrea's great-grandfather Floyd Todd, who attended USC dental school and a 99-year-old UCLA graduate, great-grandma Virginia "Gaga" Todd (known in the family as the "Genius Grandma"). Lori's parents, Jim Hanna and Andrea "Kiki" McClintock, both were attending USC when Lori was born. Talk about literally growing up on the USC campus, that's Lori McHugh.
"My mom sometimes likes to claim she went to USC, but that was only in a stroller when she was a baby," laughs Andrea.
The family feud over college affiliation even has extended to "naming rights" ... of children.
"If my mom had been a boy, my grandma wanted to name her Troy," explains Andrea. "As in short for Trojans. As in Fight On and all that. Thankfully, of course, she was a girl."
The 6-foot-8 Jim Hanna was a three-sport athlete at USC, playing football, basketball and baseball for the Trojans in the late 1950s. As a senior at famed Long Beach Poly High School, Hanna had been named the CIF high school basketball player of the year for all of southern California - no small feat in that talent-rich region.
Then there's Jeff McHugh's side of the family, which counters with Andrea's grandfather Hugh McHugh (Jeff's dad) and one of her aunts, who are both UCLA graduates.
If online dating sites had been the rage in his youth, it's unlikely Jeff McHugh ever would have been matched up with Lori Hanna.
"My dad is a UCLA graduate, so I grew up with an extreme hatred of USC, which was interesting when I met my wife, who worshiped USC," chuckles Jeff McHugh. "I naturally always have rooted for Notre Dame to beat USC."
There's even a distant Notre Dame connection in the McHugh family tree, as Jeff's grandfather Ed Osgood played football at Grinnell (Iowa) College (1917-1920) and knew famed ND football coach Knute Rockne.
Jeff McHugh's fervent support of all things UCLA of course does have its upside - it's not all grounded in hatred for the crosstown rival.
"My dad instilled in me at a young age an appreciation for John Wooden's Pyramid of Success," says Jeff McHugh, in reference to the "Wizard of Westwood."
"I worshiped John Wooden while he was winning all of his national basketball championships in the '60s and '70s. The Pyramid of Success became a foundation in my life and I have especially worked to pass on his definition of success to Andrea, similar to our shared deep faith."
Hugh McHugh had numerous John Wooden books in the family home and started tutoring young Jeff about the Pyramid of Success when he was a fourth-grader. "Learning those principles at a young age taught me to work hard every day and give my best in everything I do, so I can achieve competitive greatness," says Jeff McHugh.
Andrea McHugh still recalls some of the foundational Wooden quotes that her father shared with her at a young age:
"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are."
And: "Talent is God-given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful."
Jeff McHugh's dream naturally was to play basketball at UCLA, but he was "not quite good enough" and thus "settled for a basketball scholarship to Stanford." Even though he headed up the coast for his undergraduate days, McHugh's arch-rival did not change.
"They made a big deal about the game with Cal, but the only thing at Stanford bigger than beating Cal is beating USC," says the 1978 Stanford graduate.
From Ballerina to Bouncing Volleyballer
College volleyball rosters across the country are stocked with former southern California youth standouts, those who grew up playing the game from a young age in that talent-laden environment. Andrea McHugh's development didn't exactly follow that script, as her athletic influences are a bit more diverse and - like her collegiate coach Debbie Brown - she was a bit "late to the party" that was big-time youth volleyball.
Soccer, basketball, all sorts of dance, even surfing - McHugh did it all in her pre-high school days, before even stepping foot on a competitive volleyball court, as an eighth-grader. She ultimately honed her skills playing with the elite Laguna Niguel Volleyball Club and on the nationally-ranked varsity team at El Dorado High School, where she also participated in the high jump.
McHugh credits her extensive background in dance, ranging from point ballet to African and hip-hop, with impacting her volleyball athleticism. "You always hear about certain football players benefitting from dance lessons and I really think it helped me in terms of flexibility and quickness. Soccer and basketball definitely helped as well," says the ballerina-turned-volleyball star.
Jeff McHugh already had plenty of experience around top-level athletes when he embarked on a new stage of his life: parent. And it didn't take him long to realize he likely had a chip off the old block on his hands.
"From the first day that Andrea jumped on the soccer field as a five-year-old, you could tell she was a natural athlete," says the proud papa. "She ran all over and was focused on getting the ball in the goal. It was the same thing with basketball, and she always won the `Great Race' in elementary school."
Young Andrea began to lose interest in soccer and basketball, as a sixth-grader, because those sports were becoming too physical. She shifted gears, joining some neighborhood friends in taking ballet lessons.
"I was devastated," recalls Jeff McHugh, stunned at the time with his daughter's sudden shift in athletic/activity interests. "I wasn't sure what to do. I could not let her enter high school as only a dancer, when she was such a good athlete."
Apparently Jeff McHugh's head had been buried in the proverbial sand when it came to being clued in to the burgeoning club volleyball scene, basically right in his own backyard. "I had no idea southern California had such a great club volleyball program and did not realize what a great opportunity volleyball would be for Andrea," says the Long Beach native.
McHugh's introduction to volleyball playing for a junior-level team provided no hints at her future greatness. She did boast tremendous jumping ability and all-around athleticism, but as a newcomer to the sport she struggled to serve the ball over the net and was not a starter on those first couple teams.
Things changed dramatically during that eighth-grade year, when McHugh followed up on a friend's suggestion and tried out for a club team led by Craig Tefertiller, who later would becomes her coach at El Dorado. Early on, Tefertiller recognized something special in McHugh's upside as he began to teach her the game.
"I could not believe it when I saw her first club tournament," says Andrea's still-amazed father Jeff. "She had found a sport she loved - and there was no physical contact. The opposing team had to stay on the other side of the net."
Eight years after her introduction to big-time club volleyball, McHugh is grateful things played out the way they did.
"Most kids these days start volleyball really young, but I came into the sport late," says McHugh. "My dad kind of forced me into it, but I'm glad he did. He always was very encouraging and supportive.
"I stayed with it and things ended up working out great for me. It's funny, I can remember wearing basketball shorts to all the practices - I had spandex issues."
While it took McHugh a long time to end up on a volleyball court, it did not take her long to feel right at home.
"I fell in love with the sport right away and wanted to keep doing it," explains McHugh. "I really like the fast-paced action, the fun rallies and the team aspect of the game.
"In volleyball, if one player is not doing her job then it hurts the whole team. So much of success is based on trusting in each other. It is not just an individual sport and there's so much excitement from succeeding as a team - you get great adrenaline from it."
Immersed in Sports Culture
The combination of her family's athletic background and growing up in sports-crazed southern California molded McHugh's interests from a young age. As a five-year old, she attended the Stanford - vs. - Wisconsin Rose Bowl. It was the start of her lifelong love of college football, which included regularly attending USC practices and games.
McHugh's affinity for sports extended to the hard court, as she was swept into the Los Angeles Lakers hoopla and often attended home games. Her grandfather Jim Hanna even had played briefly with the Lakers and was a roommate of legendary point guard Jerry West.
"I was involved in so many sports, as a participant and a fan, from a young age," says McHugh. "I can remember filling out March Madness brackets for the NCAA basketball tournament when I was a little kid, breaking down different teams and talking to my dad about all the games."
Roundabout Route to ND
McHugh's route to ending up at Notre Dame is an interesting and unique one. Early in the recruiting process, she was fairly certain she would end up playing somewhere in California rather than matriculating farther away from her home base. But she ended up making a visit to Boise State, somewhat by chance, as she went on the trip with a friend whose brother played on the Boise State football team.
After her visit, McHugh was offered a full-ride scholarship from then-Boise State head coach Robin Davis and she made a verbal commitment. But shortly thereafter, Davis and his staff left Boise. Davis was returning to Notre Dame to be an assistant coach for Brown, a role he had filled for the Irish from 2001-05.
You already know how this odyssey ends. With Davis now at Notre Dame, McHugh decided she should at least take a look at the Irish program. It was June 2009, definitely late in the collegiate volleyball recruiting process but still months before the fall signing date.
It turns out that Brown actually had watched McHugh play several times and passed along her observations to Davis. Brown's scouting reports helped Davis confirm McHugh's value as a recruit - and, naturally, Brown was well aware of how McHugh ultimately could fit into the Notre Dame program.
With too much uncertainty at Boise State following the departure of Davis and his staff, McHugh decommitted and essentially re-opened the recruiting process. Jeff McHugh tagged along on his daughter's campus visit to Notre Dame in mid-June, not exactly an ideal time to visit with much of the campus closed down and a far cry from its usual atmosphere as a vibrant, bustling college community.
McHugh was offered a scholarship from Notre Dame during her visit, but she still was weighing her options. She also was considering Texas A&M, coincidentally coached by Brown's longtime close friend and her former U.S. national teammate Laurie Corbelli. It made for some interesting phone calls during the final decision phase.
"It was funny, I would be talking to Laurie and she would ask `So, how is Deb doing' and Deb would do the same, they had fun with it," recalls McHugh. "Deb talks about Laurie and their friendship all the time. It's interesting they have that connection and coached the final schools I was deciding between."
Brown admits it was a bit awkward to recruit against her decades-old close friend.
"Luckily, Laurie and I haven't recruited against each other very much," notes Brown. "Certainly, if Andrea wouldn't have come here I would have loved for her to be coached by Laurie."
(Interesting side note: the first player to fill the role of libero on the U.S. Women's National Team was one of Corbelli's former standouts at Texas A&M, Stacy Sykora).
Davis had known early on in the recruiting process that McHugh was a top-level player. "The first time I saw Andrea play in a Southern California club tournament, I knew she was special," he says. "She was playing up an age level and still was the most competitive player on the court."
McHugh felt comfortable on her visit to Notre Dame - "everything with the coaches flowed so well," she says - and she committed to the Irish two months later.
A Life Steeped in Faith
McHugh's deep Christian faith has played a large role in her development as a student-athlete. Her formative years included regular church attendance, Sunday School, singing in the church choir, going to church camp and attending Christian private schools through eighth grade
"We even hosted high school Bible studies and Fellowship of Christian Athletes [FCA] in our house," says McHugh, "My parents' faith impacted me and my siblings in a very meaningful way. Those experiences in my youth launched my faith and then greatly strengthened it over the years."
Andrea and her older brother Matt (recently a basketball player at Azusa Pacific) helped introduce FCA into their high school and she later served a 2011 summer intern with FCA in the Los Angles area. McHugh has extended her relationship with the organization by participating on-campus with NDFCA.
"Faith has been a huge part of my life and I try to lead by example on my team and on campus. I try to pour out God's light to others whenever I can," says McHugh.
Despite not being Catholic, McHugh has a lifelong appreciation for the faith. "Growing up, going back to when I was four years old, one of my best friends was Catholic and I often would go to their house when they would be saying the rosary at night," she says. "My friend's uncle was a priest and he often would celebrate Mass in their home. So I very much gained an introduction into the Catholic faith early on in my life."
Notre Dame's core theology requirements have helped McHugh "further strengthen my own faith" while the peaceful campus likewise has impacted her spirituality.
"I love the lakes and of course the Grotto. The campus is a wonderful place for relaxing and being at peace," says McHugh. "College life can often be stressful, but I am so appreciated that this campus affords these type of outlets for spiritual reflection. There are so many places where you can step back and get refocused."
Career Bookends: Fantastic Frosh & Converted Libero
McHugh made a big splash on the collegiate volleyball scene in the 2010 season, earning first team all-BIG EAST and BIG EAST Rookie of the Year honors while also being tabbed the AVCA Northeast Region Freshman of the Year. One year later, opponents began to focus on the known commodity by double-teaming their block against McHugh, thus allowing 2011 newcomers Jeni Houser and Toni Alugbue to flourish more during that season.
"I came to Notre Dame with a very competitive mindset and was able to shoulder a big role during my freshman season," says McHugh. "That role has changed a bit each year and has included becoming a more impactful player with my defending and passing, which of course is serving me well now as a libero."
Following the 2013 spring season, Brown met with McHugh and discussed the coaching staff's plans for her to shift into the vacant libero role.
"I thought I would have reacted in a different way, but I was happy to do whatever was best for the team and stepped right into it," says McHugh, known to her teammates as Q. "I've been able to get a good grasp on the whole position and am just trying to embrace all the cherished moments I have left playing at Notre Dame."
Brown describes McHugh's transition to libero as "a critical move for our team - she was the right person and the right player to do it." The Irish were in need of a consistent passer with great range on defense, two of McHugh's greatest attributes.
"In addition to having the right combination of skills for libero, Andrea is our vocal leader on the court, always talking and encouraging. She's a very selfless player," says Brown. "Andrea's reaction to the change was the best a coach could ask for. She is willing to do whatever will be best for the team and she has embraced her new role."
McHugh's transition to libero was accelerated during the team's 2013 summer trip to Europe, which included six matches against local opponents. She quickly adapted to the unique responsibilities and limitations that come with playing the new position.
What Exactly is the Libero Position? ...
If you've been to a college volleyball match over the past few years, you may have at one point, initially, asked something to the effect of: "What's the deal with that one player who has a different-colored jersey than her teammates, and how come she never tries to attack the ball - is she afraid?"
No, she's not afraid. And no, her contrasting jersey is not some sort of fashion statement.
In truth, that "rebel" in the different jersey is the designated libero player, a revolutionary position that was introduced internationally in 1998. The libero does have some unprecedented freedom on the court and essentially is an extension of the old defensive specialist role (which still exists but to lesser importance, due to the impact of the libero).
The libero can replace any teammate in the back row, without the change counting to the team's limited number of substitutions. But these freedoms come with counteracting limitations: the libero can't block, can't attack above the net and can't provide an overhand set in the front row if it leads to a teammate's attack above the net (such a set can be performed by the libero in the back row). In most worldwide competitions, the libero can't serve but the NCAA women's game in 2004 made an amendment allowing the libero to serve in one rotation.
The ideal skill set for liberos - dubbed by some as "designated diggers" - includes the fundamental need to anticipate the actions of the opponent's offense, then the ability to communicate with teammates "on the fly" while using a combination of agility and instincts for maximum court coverage. Ultimately, there has to be an unflinching willingness to pursue every opposing attack that comes rocketing over the net.
You basically are put in harms way. All the time. ... Not exactly for the faint of heart.
Some of us - not too old, hopefully - remember the days before the libero position made its collegiate debut back in 2002. Most would agree that it has been a change for the better - enhancing the quality of the game, extending rallies and adding a higher excitement level, as hitters are forced to be more creative with that pesky opposing libero patrolling the attack zone.
"It's fairly obvious that the libero has made a huge impact on the women's collegiate game," says Brown, whose time in the sport dates back to the late 1970s when she led USC to back-to-back national titles.
"The defense and ball control likely is better than it was before the libero. It also has taken away some of the gamesmanship. It is very rare that a coach runs out of substitutions, where in the past it was something the coach and team had to prepare for and practice for."
The basic structure of a volleyball match involves the six player spots rotating around the court. In the pre-libero days, a premium was placed on locating and developing players with the commensurate diversity of skills to play "all the way around" - what is known as a six-rotation player. Now, in the post-libero age, three-rotation players are becoming more of the norm.
"The reduced need to develop six-rotation players is something people in volleyball view as a positive and a negative," explains Brown. "On most teams, the libero will play back row for the middle blockers, who usually are thought to have the weakest ball control skills, and then defensive specialists can sub in for an outside or right side hitter. There's no question it has changed the game in a big way."
This new way of volleyball life has been the center of McHugh's athletic world over the past few months, a tough challenge, to be sure.
Elite Youth National-Team Duty
Despite her late arrival to elite volleyball circles back in her high school days, McHugh earned a spot on the 2009 United States team that competed at the 2009 World Youth Championships in Thailand (the summer prior to her senior year at El Dorado). Two years later, coming off her sophomore season at Notre Dame, McHugh was part of the 12-player U.S. team that competed in Peru at the 2011 Junior World Championships.
McHugh's teammates on that 2011 Junior National Team included some of collegiate volleyball's elite, most notably USC current senior libero Natalie Haglund (a two-time All-American) and Texas current junior outside hitter Haley Eckerman, the 2012 national player of the year who led the Longhorns to the national title. Texas setter Hannah Allison, now in her senior season, also was a member of that junior national team, as was Stanford current senior middle blocker Carly Woppat (a two-time first team All-American) and Oregon setter Lauren Plum, who collected All-America honors while directing the Ducks to the 2012 NCAA title match during her junior season.
McHugh grew up playing against Haglund and current UCLA outside hitter Kelly Reeves during club and youth-level competitions. "I always was impressed with how both of them played, particularly looking back at the way Nataly always has played since we now have the same position in college," says McHugh.
"Nataly has a great drive and natural passion that she brings every day to practices and games. She goes full-out for everything and that's something I try to do."
McHugh of course didn't realize it at the time back in 2011 - when she and Haglund were teammates on that elite junior national team - but her longtime youth rival would end up being an inspiration and role model for McHugh's sudden position shift.
"I really admire the way Nataly Haglund plays the position of libero and I can learn a lot from how she conducts herself on the court," explains McHugh. "I try to have a similar classic libero mindset of being relentless, going after everything and getting all the digs I can. I try to be effective on serve receive and passing, so the setters can have the most options and set what they want."
An Unconventional Sports Hero
Even though her grandfather Jim Hanna had only the proverbial "cup of coffee" in the NBA, that connection helped McHugh because a diehard L.A. Lakers fan growing up.
"I still can remember that crazy 3-point shot that Robert Horry made to beat the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs when that was a big rivalry," says McHugh. "And then a few weeks later watching the 2002 NBA Finals on the last night of school before summer in fourth grade - we were going crazy."
While McHugh's favorite Lakers players have included the like of Horry and Shaquille O'Neal, she also admits to being a "big fan" of former Lakers guard Derek Fisher, whose 17-year NBA career has included 13 total seasons in Los Angeles
Fisher is one of those players who draws labels such as "serviceable point guard" or "game manager," - a far cry from the late-game dramatics of "Big Shot Bob" Robert Horry or the worldwide mega-stardom that surrounded the 7-foot-1 Shaq.
Maybe, to stretch a cross-sports analogy, a player like Derek Fisher is sort of the libero of professional basketball.
"When Fisher left the Lakers, I was pretty upset. I had his bobblehead in my room and still keep it, pretending he still is on the team," says McHugh, who continues to root for her favorite player even though Fisher now wears an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey.
"Derek Fisher and others like him, those are the type of players who are the heart and soul of the team. A big responsibility of mine is to be that type of vocal leader on the court."
McHugh is a film, television and theater major (a.k.a. FTT) at Notre Dame, which does not offer formal majors in journalism or communications. With her concentration in television, McHugh's favorite classes have included Sports in Television.
"There is so much involved in sports television beyond the actual broadcasting, with product placement, marketing and advertising," says McHugh. "I could see myself getting into sports broadcasting on the college or pro level. The news aspect of sports has a lot of legitimacy for me."
McHugh admits it is "fun to explore the major" as an FTT student at Notre Dame. One recent series of classes, Makeup for the Stage, allows students to make different character analysis and study emotionally-stylized makeup.
In one assignment, McHugh had to use the appropriate makeup to transform herself into a cheetah. That's somewhat appropriate, since if animals were to play volleyball, the libero certainly would have to be played by a cheetah, zig-zagging around the court at breakneck speed, using that distinctive rudder-like tail to stop on a dime.
"Notre Dame has prepared me for postgraduate life by shaping me into a well-rounded person," adds McHugh, who has participated in Notre Dame's Rosenthal Leadership Academy for the last two years. "My liberal arts education has taught me so many interesting things and opened my mind to think outside the box, which is going to serve me well in whatever I do in the future."
Jeff McHugh has lived vicariously through his daughter Andrea's collegiate career, revisiting his own playing memories while adding so many new experiences along the way. He even admits to rooting for Notre Dame last year versus his alma mater Stanford, during that epic football game that went to overtime and extended Notre Dame's record to 6-0.
"Eventually, you drink the `Notre Dame Kool-Aid and you can never go back," says Jeff McHugh. "The atmosphere at the ND-USC football game during Andrea's sophomore year was amazing."
Andrea McHugh's journey from a spunky youth soccer player to a top volleyball player and soon-to-be college graduate has been one characterized, in the words of her dad, by a "ferocious competitive spirit, discipline, faith, care for others and tremendous independence.
"When my wife dropped Andrea off for kindergarten, she marched into the classroom and never looked back," jokes the eternally impressed father.
"One thing special about Andrea is that she always has time for the underdogs and for young players she has met at volleyball camps. She keeps in touch with many of them and serves as a mentor.
"And sort of a combination impressive/funny thing is how Andrea has really become interested in wellness and nutrition. We hate it when she comes home, because all of the junk food will be thrown out by her."
As McHugh and Brindock near the end of their college careers, they both laugh when remembering that, for some reason, they failed to hit it off during their freshman year. "Today, we are basically attached at the hip - and we even have the same birthday," laughs McHugh.
Adds Brindock: "Some people now may think that Andrea and I are the same person, we have become that close. Andrea is such a fun and loving friend who always puts others before herself. Her good attitude and upbeat personality fills the room when she enters - it's contagious.
"Andrea has so much genuine passion, whether it's with volleyball or just life. Her commitment and pure love for the game is indescribable. She makes me want to be a better player and, most importantly, a better person."
One year after adopting the word freedom during her junior season, McHugh selected the term "relentless" as her personal motto for the current 2013 campaign.
"Relentlessness is an inherent part of playing libero - going after everything, always trying to get the ball and playing with unending passion," concludes McHugh.
"But the word relentless also has so much to do with the way I love my teammates, so that they can impact others in a way similar to how I hopefully impacted them and left a positive experience on them."
Just like Derek Fisher, just like the cheetah, Andrea McHugh will keep chasing, always trusting, pursuing until the final whistle.
After all, isn't that what true faith is all about?