This past Tuesday morning, UC San Diego junior Kyle McCauley woke up to a slew of congratulatory texts.
“Something good must have happened,” McCauley thought.
He was right as he heard from family, past and present coaches, teammates, and friends. An outpouring of attaboys from the volleyball community.
McCauley didn’t know that he had received not only AVCA first-team All-American honors, but was also named the AVCA Newcomer of the Year, both historic firsts for the UCSD men’s volleyball program. And his setter, Connor Walbrecht, made the AVCA second team, another first for the Triton program.
“It’s pretty awesome and I’m just very appreciative of all the support I have and great people that I’ve met through the volleyball community,” McCauley said.
McCauley’s AVCA recognition capped a stellar season for the transfer from Orange Coast Community College, who made the Big West all-conference first team.
“He’s a very good player, and his teammates and our coaching staff certainly recognized that early on, but he’s very unassuming,” UCSD coach Kevin Ring said. “He just went about his business, worked to get better in our practice gym, and he’s very much got that team first mentality.”
The 6-foot-4 outside hitter from Huntington Beach led UCSD, which finished the abbreviated men’s season tied for sixth in the final AVCA poll, with 268 kills (4.06/set) as he hit .321 and was third in digs with 96 (1.45/set).
But the awards were bittersweet in a coronavirus-shortened year in which UCSD made a dramatic turn-around. In 2019, the Tritons finished 7-20, 0-10 in the Big West. When the 2020 season ended they were 14-5, 2-1 in the Big West, and had beaten UC Irvine, UCLA, USC, Loyola and Princeton.
There was certainly a chance UCSD could have gotten the at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“To have that taken away from us, which is understandable and reasonable given the circumstances, really pisses us off even more because we were having such a great season,” McCauley said.
“We wanted to end the right way, like a lot of other athletes, but didn’t get that opportunity. But that definitely adds a lot more motivation.”
The Big West was loaded this season, with Hawai’i ranked No. 2, UC Santa Barbara No. 3, and UC Irvine ranked No. 6.
“I was really looking forward to playoffs, not only in the Big West, but for the NCAA playoffs,” McCauley said, “because I think we really gained momentum and had an opportunity to maybe make a run.”
Instead, McCauley chooses to focus on gratitude.
“I just appreciated every single time I got to practice, especially with the teammates and coaching staff that I have,” said McCauley, who came to UCSD after being the Orange Empire Conference MVP in 2019. “I look back on that and it helps me appreciate and value next year a lot more.”
Ring found it easy to integrate McCauley into the offense from the get-go.
“Here’s this guy coming in, in his first year in the program, coming in as a starter, but he still respected the program, the guys that had been in the program, the returners, and just went about his business,” Ring said. “He practiced really hard, he had a great mentality, was pretty even keeled as a competitor. He wouldn’t get too high or too low, and that steadiness was great for him and his personality, and it really helped our team.”
McCauley is an avid surfer, so UCSD was a natural fit.
“I love the beach, I really enjoyed the official visit I had with coach Ring and coaches, and that got me excited,” he said. “I just knew I just wanted to play at UCSD. And it didn’t hurt that the surf there is definitely good.”
McCauley, who also played basketball in high school, didn’t play organized volleyball until his last year of middle school. His mother Linda played volleyball in high school, while his father Chuck competed in basketball and track and field. Older sister Kali didn’t play volleyball.
In his senior year at Edison High he finally quit basketball to concentrate on volleyball.
“I fell in love with volleyball,” McCauley said. “The action, the skills, the teammates, and the flow of the game alone is special, and something I was drawn to.”
It’s unusual for a first team All-American to come out of a junior college, even one as storied as Orange Coast. He played there for Travis Turner, who also coached him in boys club at Balboa Bay. Last season, Orange Coast finished 22-1, losing in the CCCAA semifinals.
“At the JC level, I could definitely get away with some more technical things, for example,” McCauley said. “I could whale on the ball and get away with it. With the help of coach Ring and the other coaches, I was definitely able to reel that in and improve my shot selection and my defense.”
Ring recognized McCauley’s talents immediately, having seen him at one of Turner’s showcases as well at a number of practices throughout the previous summer.
“Even before he came to UCSD we saw the talent. He’s got a nice platform, handles pace well, has got a live arm for sure, can hit a heavy ball and has good volleyball IQ and all-around skills,” Ring said. “I knew right away that he was going to be near the top of our depth chart as an outside hitter coming in.”
McCauley is focused on improving.
“I think I need to work on consistency,” he said, adding he wants to work on his hitting percentage, shot selection and defense.
That will have to wait, of course.
McCauley is at his parents’ home in Huntington Beach. He is completing team workouts and studying online. He’s majoring in urban studies and development.
“I was never interested in the basics or anything STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) related, so I wanted to go off-track and was intrigued by urban studies and development,” McCauley said. “Online studying is definitely challenging. It really gauges how disciplined you are. Some of my classes don’t require you to attend the Zoom classes, it’s all recorded. There’s a lot of gray area, so it’s really up to you whether or not you want to be successful.”
In the meantime, he’s making the best of the situation.
“I’m surfing and trying to stay busy during these times, because it’s really easy to go stir crazy,” McCauley said. “I’m managing, I just want to get out and see my friends and want to go do things. I want to go down to the pier and just want to watch everyone enjoy these beautiful days that we’re having.
“And I’m just stuck in the house.”
BYU junior right side Gabi Garcia Fernandez was named the AVCA national player of the year and UC Santa Barbara’s Rick McLaughlin was named the national coach of the year. Click here for the complete list of AVCA player honors, which includes first and second teams and honorable mentions. Click here for more about McLaughlin.