Arizona State graduate student Maddie McLaughlin made a position change by switching from outside hitter to middle blocker, considered a rare move in volleyball due to the significant shift from offense to defense.
What is even more rare is McLaughlin's openness to sharing her story about how she overcame Lyme disease and accomplished her dream of playing for a Division I school. Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the U.S., transmitted to humans through infected ticks.
"I got to volleyball pretty late, I started as a freshman in high school. And then after that first season, I noticed something was really wrong with my body," McLaughlin said. "That led to an almost three-year-long illness. I had Lyme Disease, but I didn't realize it was Lyme disease until about two years in, so it had already progressed way past the acute and into the chronic stage."
McLaughlin attended SUNY Geneseo for the first two years of college and won the Women’s Volleyball Rookie of the Year award in 2018. She joined the Sun Devil program as a transfer student in the 2020-21 season as an outside hitter.
"I sent out a bunch of emails and Arizona State was one of the schools that was interested in me," McLaughlin said. "So they flew me out here and I just completely fell in love with the school, and then the rest is history."
McLaughlin has been working closely with ASU assistant coach Preslie Anderson to adjust to the middle blocker position.
"I think it just goes to show that you are bigger than your circumstances, and Maddie has a really unique volleyball story," Anderson said. "She is (a player) that had a different type of path than most of our players. But it's one definitely worth noting because it goes to show what resilience and hard work and just doing what you love and how far that passion for the game can take you."
McLaughlin’s best friend and teammate, senior opposite hitter Marta Levinska, hasn't lost sight of the commitment McLaughlin makes after overcoming Lyme disease and moving to middle blocker.
"I think just emphasizing the fact that what (Maddie) did, very few people have done," Levinska said. "I think it's definitely something that she worked really hard (for). So I think it's been just emphasizing the hard work and that it is possible to do that, it just requires a lot of discipline."
This season, McLaughlin’s total kills have increased by 42 compared to the three kills she had in 2022. With McLaughlin's contributions – as well as the addition of a new coach – the Sun Devils have gotten off to a 10-0 start for the first time since 2015.
"I think there's a lot of good things happening here," Levinska said. "We have obviously a new staff with a bunch of new roles, lots of new transfers. No one really knows how our season is gonna go, but what we do know is we've taken our time as a staff and as a team as a collective to choose what we're going to focus on."
McLaughlin's journey to middle blocker began when ASU first-year coach JJ Van Niel asked her if she had any experience with the position.
"I had never previously played middle, which was a question that my head coach had asked me during one of the practices in the spring," McLaughlin said. "I said I (didn't) and he decided to just give it a trial run for a week basically."
When testing out the middle blocker position, McLaughlin played in a spring tournament game and when it went well decided that it was the best move for her and the coaching staff.
"We just decided to fully commit to that move. I trained really hard over the summer," McLaughlin said. "So I worked with my position coach, Preslie Anderson, and I committed to watching roughly 50,000 clips of setters so I could learn how to read a setter."
Anderson recognizes the hard work McLaughlin put in when adjusting to the middle blocker position.
"Maddie is one of the hardest working athletes I've met," Anderson said. "I'm really lucky that she ended up moving physicians from outside to middle because that means I get to work with her even more. Honestly, I'm sure she saw this move coming for her. We were talking about it the other day, and I think this is the best thing that could have happened to her because it's given her something new and exciting."
McLaughlin shares this sentiment and is excited for her future in the position.
“I personally love it. I feel like I probably should have been the middle for a long time,” McLaughlin said.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth