Playing Overseas Puts McClinton in Prime Position
LAWRENCE, Kan. – At the end of her sophomore season, Sara McClinton had picked up All-Big 12 First Team honors after helping her Kansas team to a national seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Nebraska native was preparing to leave the country for the first time in her life.
Now, weeks before her senior campaign officially begins, McClinton returned to Lawrence from her second worldly volleyball trip in as many years. This one sent the two-time All-Big 12 First Team selection to Maribor, Slovenia and Pula, Croatia with a first and last stop in Venice, Italy. From July 8-19, McClinton saw a completely different style of volleyball and view of the world than what she experienced a year ago while playing in China.
“I did enjoy this trip more,” McClinton said. “It’s a lot easier to transition to the type of food when you’re actually able to enjoy everything. Croatia was the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in my life. China was awesome as far as seeing history and the Great Wall, but Croatia was just a whole other world.”
For the second-straight season, McClinton competed for the Bring It Promotions/USA Developmental Program, which sends a collection of the best players from across the country overseas for two solid weeks of training and competition. Coached by Daniel Fisher, the head coach at Pitt, the team landed in Venice, Italy and immediately went sightseeing to get themselves acclimated to the time change.
The only returning player from last summer’s roster, McClinton naturally found herself in a leadership role. She and her teammates had never met before the trip, but that didn’t stop McClinton from helping the others relax about the anxiety of being in a foreign place with no knowledge of the language or local customs. With her senior season fast approaching, McClinton not only sharpened her on-court talent, but her leadership skills, as well.
“I think this trip did help me be more comfortable as a leader,” McClinton said. “I could take what I’ve learned from the past three years and really help our teammates adjust. That will help at KU, especially because we have seven freshmen coming in. I think that’s a part of my job, to make them feel comfortable and get them doing the right things. Coach B (Bechard) has said that Chelsea (Albers) and I have been great at blending the team together.”
McClinton is right. The 6-2 outside hitter watched the seven-member senior class in front of her graduate following the 2013 season, following the team’s first Sweet 16 appearance in program history. This August, the Jayhawks will embark on a new year with her and Albers as the only two seniors. The dwindled number isn’t a reason to worry, however, as both return with Honorable Mention All-America honors and All-Big 12 First Team accolades. Albers became the first Jayhawk since 1993 to record 300 kills, 200 digs and 100 blocks in a season last year, while McClinton is a mere 45 kills away from the 1,000-career mark.
Spending her summers playing overseas has only added to McClinton’s already-lethal abilities on the court. Last June, the BIP/USA squad played six matches against international competition, which included several professional players. This time around, McClinton played in nine matches. She explained that the team played two sessions of volleyball every day, whether it be two practices, two matches or one practice and one match each day. Needless to say, McClinton feels ready for 2014.
“It was a lot. I’ve been in two-a-days for the past few weeks,” McClinton said. “Last year the coaches even commented that I came in and I was completely prepared for the season and came in ahead of the curve. So I think this year too, getting that much playing time in matches, I’m feeling very prepared for the season and ahead of the game.”
Kansas head coach Ray Bechard agreed. In the last three years, he’s guided McClinton to repeated success – particularly after her overseas playing excursion in China. She led the team with a 3.13 kills per set mark last fall, which kept her in the top-10 among Big 12 Conference attackers all year. Bechard sees no reason why this summer’s time away can’t prove just as effective.
“It was obviously a very productive trip,” Bechard said. “As a group, they really came together, which is a difficult thing to do when you have pieces coming in from all different areas. She had an opportunity to play a significant role, sometimes six rotations. She enjoyed the process and played against some high-level teams, so I see it as extremely positive. We wanted her to come into her senior season with a lot of momentum.”
The team arrived with less than a week to meet each other, train together and prepare to play. Slovenia was first and consisted of a pair of friendly matches before they left for the tournament in Croatia. Upon arrival, McClinton met a couple of familiar faces – although usually only from across the net. Texas junior middle blocker Sarah Hattis and sophomore setter Chloe Collins were also on the team.
Working directly with Collins as a setter-hitter duo, McClinton said the two connected right away and noted that the UT star was a fantastic setter. She added that she actually knew how Collins’ outside hitters played and as the Longhorns run a similar set to their pin hitters as KU does, making for an instant connection.
“Most of the other countries they are in different levels of national teams and have been playing with each other for a long time,” McClinton said. “As far as the American teams, most of them are preparing that week together. So they’re saying whichever teams can come together the quickest are the ones which are going to win, versus the ones that have crazy freak athletes that are so good, but if they don’t come together as a team, they’re not going to make it.”
McClinton joked about creating a rivalry with Russia, due to the fact that her US team matched up with them three times. The focus was primarily on the training rather than the outcome, given the large discrepancies in the amount of time teams had been playing together. The final result was the same – McClinton is ready. Not just for volleyball, but anything that might come her way.
“It makes me feel like after college, if I have to go to either a foreign country or a different city and not be with my family, I’ll be able to survive and deal with adversity. I’ve learned that I get along well with complete strangers and can find friends in two weeks. Then it also gave me a dose of playing professionally after college, which is definitely something that these trips have sparked my interest in.”
McClinton and the Jayhawks report to campus on Aug. 8 and kickoff preseason camp on Aug. 9. KU opens the season with the Kansas Invitational, Aug. 29-30.
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