None of this has been fair, and we all know it, and sports isn’t life and death, and we know it, but this is volleyball, and it really matters to us.
And it was in that spirit that I talked to Stanford senior Meghan McClure.
“I could never have imagined a year ago that this is where we’d be now,” she said.
The 6-foot McClure is not the only one who’s losing her senior year, and she’s not the only NCAA senior who simply has had enough and won’t be back even though she could play another season.
But the VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American for three years running, so well liked and admired in the sport, is also the only player currently in NCAA volleyball with two championships to her credit and one of only three seniors — who else? — with rings. More on that later.
To get right to the point, regardless of how this season finishes up, McClure is headed to Memphis to work for Teach for America and teach special education for two years. She also plans to work on her master’s along the way.
Barring something else being thrown Stanford’s way, the Cardinal goes to Washington next Friday and Saturday and then ends the season April 2-4 at home against UCLA. The best Stanford can do is win out and finish with just 11 matches. Not exactly the senior year McClure was expecting.
Simply put, this was going to be her year.
The ultimate team player, the role player who sparkled under the radar — remember her getting the national-championship kill in 2018? — was going to be the only senior.
“I was so excited, I was finally going to get to be in a leadership role and probably a more prominent role on the court,” McClure said by Zoom from her apartment in Palo Alto.
“I’ve had the most amazing time playing at Stanford. That class above me was so phenomenal in every single way and I miss them so much, but I was excited to kind of be on my own for a year.”
Not that you would, but don’t forget that Stanford volleyball was coming off a charmed four years.
The then-freshman class of Kathryn Plummer, Jenna Gray, Morgan Hentz, and Audriana Fitzmorris, and super-senior Inky Ajanaku won it all in 2016 in what turned out to be coach John Dunning‘s last match.
The next year, with Kevin Hambly at the helm and a freshman outside named Meghan McClure cracking the lineup, the Cardinal had a magnificent season by anyone’s standards. They won the Pac-12 title, had a 30-4 record, and got to the national semifinals, where Stanford lost the first two sets, came back to force a fifth, and ultimately lost to Florida. Florida then lost to Nebraska, who had two freshman named Lauren Stivrins and Jazz Sweet, and now you know the answer to the previous question.
Stanford, of course, won the NCAA title the past two seasons. But the fabulous four moved on and the Cardinal was re-tooling with a strong sense of optimism.
Spring practice in 2020 couldn’t have been going better, McClure recalled.
“And then COVID hit.”
She shook her head.
“We thought it was going to be like a two-week thing. I went home (to Rancho Santa Margarita in Southern California). I was so excited to have a longer spring break and get a break from school. It would be so nice to go home to Southern California.”
“And I never came back.”
She laughed again.
“It was so weird. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Jenna or Morgan because I thought I would see them in two weeks. So I haven’t seen any of those upperclassmen … Some of my best friends, I haven’t see them in a year.”
Not knowing what was ahead, with boyfriend King Jemison along for the trip, McClure was thrilled to be with her family.
“And then the world shut down.”
She and King managed to get to his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and then she went back to Rancho Santa Margarita.
“And then it just kept happening. But the spring was kind of nice because everyone else was home, too.”
That included her sister, Mandy, and Meghan stayed in her room because Mandy has a bunk bed. She also has a brother, Matthew, who plays baseball at Loyola Marymount.
McClure had a summer job selling, of all things, power tools, and in August headed back to Stanford, although school there starts later than most because it’s on the quarter system.
The team stayed at a hotel — without the coaches, who couldn’t be with the players — because they weren’t allowed on campus. And while they were there, the Pac-12 delayed the season to the spring. That was when Stanford’s only other senior, defensive specialist Kate Formico, decided she’d had enough.
“So we all decided to stay for that month and train, but training at that point did not look like volleyball. We were on the grass and then we moved to our tennis courts at Stanford. But we could only have two people touch the ball at a time. So I could pass to the setter and she could only set and I could hit but we couldn’t have a block. Kevin was extremely creative with what we did, but it wasn’t anything like real volleyball.”
They practiced outside at 6 a.m. The output from the area wildfires was occasionally so bad that some practices were called off.
Since campus was closed to them and going to college remotely doesn’t depend on geography, in September the team — on its own — went to San Diego. McClure stayed with her family and drove an hour to join them a few times a week.
“I got practice plans from Kevin and would show the team. All he was allowed to do was send us practice plans.”
It wasn’t McClure’s intention to be a de facto coach, but “I was the one getting the drills and kind of running them.”
They only had 10 players, so 5-on-5 was normally the order of the day, but sometimes former Stanford star Cassidy Lichtman practiced with them, “which was really, really nice.”
After a month or so, the team dispersed again and McClure stayed with her family, training when she could with her old program (Laguna Beach Volleyball Club) and then hooked up with a few UCLA players who were playing with some other college players a couple of times a week.
The group included Zoe Fleck and Devon Chang of UCLA, Kenzie Koerber of Utah, and her current Stanford teammates freshman setter Malia Tufuga and sophomore outside Natalie Berty “and it was really fun.”
The Stanford team returned to Palo Alto on January 4 and had to do a two-week quarantine before they headed back to the grass courts.
“The coaches did a really good job of trying to train us on the grass, but it was not ideal. It rains a lot in Northern California during the winter,” McClure said.
Meanwhile, the rest of the college volleyball world was preparing in earnest for its fall season in the spring. Stanford’s opening-season series at USC January 22-24 and at Colorado January 29-31 had already been canceled. The Cardinal, dealing with the tough COVID restrictions put forth in Santa Clara County, finally got the OK to practice indoors in late January with an eye on opening the season February 5 at Arizona.
“You would have thought we got the greatest news in the world,” McClure recalled, “but it was just that we were able to practice like everyone else at that point.”
They practiced for a week, things were going in the right direction, and on Wednesday, February 3, with McClure’s travel bags all ready and sitting by the door, her roommate was up uncharacteristically early.
She tested positive for COVID.
“And I checked my phone,” McClure said, shaking her head, “and I had like 40 messages. ‘Do not leave your room! You have been contact traced!’ And I was like, oh, dear goodness.”
I had to ask. Did she cry?
“I did. I cried a lot during my quarantine. I was really upset.”
Sadly, she watched from afar the matches at Arizona, where Stanford — without its only senior, who happens to be a steadying influence in all respects — got swept and then lost in four.
“I was really bummed for the team,” McClure said. “It was hard for me to watch that and not be there. There were three of us in quarantine at that time so we just FaceTimed and talked about it.”
She smiled and added, “They should have put us on the Pac-12 broadcasts.”
Stanford went to Cal on February 12 — again without McClure — and lost in five, the Bears’ only victory this spring.
It bothered McClure that King, her boyfriend, got to a Stanford match before her because he called the Cal match on the radio.
“That was heartbreaking,” she joked.
And the next night, at 7, McClure got the OK to get back in the gym. She hurriedly got to practice in preparation for Cal coming to Stanford the next day. Stanford setter Selina Xu joined her and McClure hit for 30 minutes.
“And I was playing the next morning.”
And not bad, either. McClure had six kills in a sweep of Cal, and added an ace, a block, and eight digs.
After that Cal match, the next four were canceled, two against Washington State and two at Oregon State.
Stanford made it to Salt Lake City and dropped two at Utah, saw its home series with Oregon canceled, and then this past weekend swept Arizona State before losing in five.
On Friday, McClure led with 18 kills and hit .444 after having two errors in 36 attacks to go with two assists, two aces, and seven digs. Then Sunday, as Stanford fell to 2-6, McClure had 13 kills, an ace, a block, and 20 digs.
When you go back to the 2017 VolleyballMag.com 2017 Fab 50 list of the best club players in America, the names are quite impressive.
McClure, then a Stanford signee, was one of the 50.
“I told John when I was being recruited, ‘I will run through a wall, I will serve, I will do whatever you need me to do and be so happy doing it.’ And that was true so this is all beyond my wildest dreams.”
Just consider that Lexi Sun, the product of San Diego who started at Texas and is finishing at Nebraska, topped the list.
Four players from that group are at Wisconsin and made it to last year’s NCAA final against Stanford: Danielle Hart, Sydney Hilley, Grace Loberg, and Dana Rettke.
Also on list were so many players having outstanding college careers, including Taylor Bannister (LSU), Gabby Curry (Kentucky), Samantha Drechsel (Maryland and Washington), Taryn Knuth (Florida State), Madison Lilley (Kentucky), Kayla Lund (Pitt), Mac May (UCLA), Erika Pritchard (Maryland), Avery Skinner (Kentucky), Jazz Sweet (Nebraska), and Lauren Witte (Ohio State).
Quite a list. And only one of them can make the same claim as McClure, that they’ve won a national championship, and that’s Nebraska’s Sweet.
Sweet and Stivrins — who was not in that Fab 50 — will have another shot at a title, because Nebraska will be in the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford’s season ends in two weeks.
When I brought that up, McClure started to tear up.
“It’s hard. This is not what I ever planned for. This is not what I ever would have wanted for my senior season. I wish that I could say that it was, but it’s not. It’s been hard. It seems like we’re getting the short end of the stick with everything. We have a small team to start with, we’ve had injuries that prevented people from playing, and then we had COVID. Why?”
She pointed out how many reserves Stanford had last year. Not this season.
“I try to stay positive, but I’ve definitely have really bad days where I feel like we’re drawing the bad end of the stick, and I feel as if I’ve gotten so much bad news over the past two months. So-and-so has COVID, and now so-and-so is injured, and it’s hard. Every time I see a text from Kevin or someone from the team I hold my breath because I’m afraid something else is coming at us.”
“Stanford and Stanford volleyball has given me more than I could have ever asked for, ever expected, ever hoped for. I never thought I would get to play at Stanford. I never thought I win a national championship. I didn’t know that was in the cards for me.”
McClure will graduate with a degree in Stanford’s The Program in Science, Technology, and Society.
“I cannot be more thankful for Stanford volleyball. It’s been my dream to play here. I couldn’t opt out this season. I couldn’t say no to Stanford volleyball, because this is all I’ve ever dreamt of and wanted and it’s provided me with so much.”
She talked about the great teammates, lifelong friends, loving the former coaches Dunning and Denise Corlett, and the current staff, including Hambly and his wife, Mary, trainer Tyler Friedrich, and sports information director Regina Verlengiere.
“I’m so grateful for John and Denise for believing in a 6-foot outside that I could come to Stanford. I don’t think many people would have taken that risk. I would love to think that Kevin would. He might, but I’m not sure he would. I don’t know. So I’m so grateful to them for choosing me and supporting me my junior and senior years when I was going through the application process. John was amazing and I was super excited to play for him and was really bummed that I didn’t get the chance.
“But also I wouldn’t have changed a thing that I got to play for Kevin for four years.”
Hambly, of course, came from Illinois when Dunning retired.
“Now I don’t think I’d want to play for anyone other than Kevin,” McClure said. “I’ve gotten so used to being coached by Kevin. He’s such an unorthodox coach for college volleyball. He’s so calm, he is so logical, and I can’t put value on that as a player.
“I’m someone who stresses a lot and put a lot of pressure on myself and I don’t need someone yelling in my face all the time when I’m playing and he is really good. He prepares us for matches and I feel like I’m in such good hands with him and I trust him wholeheartedly.
“I don’t think I’d want to play for anyone else my last year. Don’t forget, he took a chance on a small outside my freshman year and I could not be more grateful for the opportunity he gave me.”
So why not play another year and get graduate school paid for at one of finest academic institutions in the country? And McClure could certainly go pro.
“I had a lot on my mind when Kevin told me we could have 13 scholarships next year and I could stay. There was a lot going through my mind. When I was making my decision I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for the opportunities I had with Stanford. Because I know some people would die and go to heaven to have a fifth year at Stanford and get their master’s at Stanford paid for.”
McClure really wants to get her master’s in education. Stanford was not an option, she said.
“And I was so excited about Teach for America.”
Meghan’s love for her sister, Mandy, who has Down syndrome, is well-documented and that’s a huge part of her desire to work in special education.
“I’ve had the best time at Stanford volleyball, but I’m tired. I’m ready to move on a little bit. I’ve loved my time here. I used to think that all I wanted to do was play pro volleyball. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And it’s so amazing for all those people who do want to play. It’s just not the right choice for me. I love my family and I love being around where I can see my family.”
She had international playing experience that included playing in 2019 on the U.S. Collegiate National Team at the World University Games in Naples, Italy.
“It was not my favorite. I did not love the experience,” McClure said.
“I think a lot of what I love about volleyball is, and I’ve learned that these past three years, is my team. I love Stanford volleyball.”
This was an awesome article.
Meghan – I don’t know you, not sure if I’ll ever get to meet you, but I hope you read this!
I played high school volleyball and was on a somewhat competitive club men’s team in college – I was a smallish outside, so I absolutely love your game. And having followed your career for the last 4 years, I really have become a huge fan!
I think every Stanford volleyball fan knows how consistent your all-around game is – you have tremendous heart and you play way bigger than 6 feet at the net (I seem to recall you legit BOUNCING some balls against Wisconsin in the natty) and way smaller than 6 feet in the back row. There aren’t many outsides in the country passing in all 6 rotations!
I really do admire you opening up about your inner doubts, conflicts and disappointments. I respect so much your decision to leave Stanford and become a teacher! The world needs more people like you as teachers. I too wish your senior year went better for you – you deserved it. But despite all that I hope you know how many legit FANS you have – I am one of them!
Meghan, you have always been one of the radiantly joyful players I have every encountered on and off the court– from Katy Daly-Gammon’s SMCHS Eagles to Stanford. Best of luck in your career endeavors– and continue to shine brightly!
This story exemplifies what college sport can aspire to. Our purpose is to help young people move into adulthood. Stanford and its coaches did a great job. Meghan gave it all she had, and that is more than enough.