McDonnell Making It Look Easy

Phuc Pham/New University

Standing tall at 6-foot-6, senior Dan McDonnell fits the prototype for a collegiate volleyball player: tall, thin and charmingly handsome. But McDonnell has more to offer than his looks. As the middle blocker, it is McDonnell’s job to make key blocks and attack aggressively on offense. With his .95 blocks per set and .429 hitting percentage, one would think McDonnell has been playing since he was little — but that’s hardly the case.

McDonnell is an Arizona native born to loving parents who were not professional athletes. There was no higher calling that inclined McDonnell to play volleyball. His story starts out almost like every other, playing different sports as a child: baseball, football and basketball. High school came and McDonnell pursued baseball, his favorite sport.

Unfortunately, he was faced with the devastating news of not making his high school baseball team. His mother then gave him an ultimatum his sophomore year: he was to either get a job or find another sport. Fate then gave McDonnell a little nudge. Volleyball just so happened to be the same season as baseball, so his decision was simple.

“My parents were just glad I was out of the house and expending all my energy on volleyball,” McDonnell said. “It was kind of a learning experience for them too because they had never seen [volleyball] being played.”

Being a late-comer to the game, McDonnell did not have the same amount of opportunities or experience that his fellow high school teammates had. Despite his six-inch growth spurt in high school, colleges did not recruit McDonnell for volleyball. He made the choice to attend the University of Arizona. It was cheap and close to home, so it seemed like a smart choice.  It was here that McDonnell met someone who would change his future: Matt Dyck, his first club volleyball coach. Coach Dyck pushed McDonnell to push his limits and become a better player.

Change was in motion and bigger things came to McDonnell his sophomore year at University of Arizona under the guidance of Coach Dyck. It was at a tournament in Las Vegas when David Kniffin, former assistant coach for the Anteaters, spotted McDonnell. Eager to recruit him, Kniffin gave his information to Dyck, asking Dyck to contact him regarding an offer for McDonnell here at UCI.

“I didn’t even know Irvine was a school at that time,” McDonnell confessed. “All of my teammates were like ‘Oh, that’s the coach from UCI’ and I had no idea what UCI was.”

Coach Kniffin initiated McDonnell’s career at Irvine. He made McDonnell think beyond just the game of volleyball. He taught the sociology major how to challenge himself and how volleyball can make someone a better person. In McDonnell’s case, it made him more confident and willing to take risks. McDonnell confessed that he almost rejected the idea of coming to Irvine.

“Ever since I have been here, I have learned that you really should jump on any opportunity that comes up,” McDonnell said. “It’s better to take the risk then have to look back and regret not doing something.”

McDonnell took this new confidence in clutch situations. In a close game, McDonnell is the one who wants the ball, who wants to be in control, the “clutch guy.” In order to do so, McDonnell stays focused with the help of assistant coach Andrea Becker. Coach Becker is a sports psychologist and resorts to meditation to get each player in the proper mindset. An emotional player, McDonnell looks to coach Becker for help on staying focused on living in the moment and not dwelling on the past. Being an emotional player can be both good and bad, and McDonnell trusts Coach Becker to help him focus on future plays during a game.

The Anteaters were ranked No. 1 in the nation at a certain point in the season. As a senior, this is one accomplishment he can keep in his memories.

“It’s always a good feeling to be ranked No. 1, but you try not to let it get to your head,” McDonnell explained. “But you have to go out and play your best volleyball every single night because every single team wants to knock you out.”

He started out with the hopes of being a baseball player, stumbled upon the sport of volleyball, transferred to a school he had never known and earned the title of being the No. 1 team in the nation at one point. Next on McDonnell’s list: pursuing volleyball overseas in Europe.