Imagine if there were a 7-footer walking around a high school campus who could dunk like Shaquille O'Neal but refused to play for the basketball team. It would be a travesty and the subject of much debate.
Michael Beals of Manhattan Beach Mira Costa was that teenager -- except in volleyball. For three years, living in a beach community that cherishes volleyball, Beals declined to join the high school team. He was a lanky 6-foot-6 pitcher for the baseball team who also played club volleyball. He couldn't make a decision which sport to choose, since they were played at the same time.
"I was on the fence," he said.
But last summer, when his volleyball skills began to take a huge jump, the decision was made for him. He received a scholarship offer from UCLA and signed a letter of intent in November without playing in a single high school volleyball match.
It's the first time in Brian Rofer's 20 seasons recruiting volleyball players as an assistant coach for the 19-time NCAA champion Bruins that he has signed a teenager who didn't play for his high school team. Rofer based his evaluation on what he saw from Beals in club action and his college potential.
"Yeah, he beat the odds in that he learned to play volleyball outside the school system," Rofer said. "He learned in the club system, and that's rare because most kids start playing in junior high and their only exposure early is in high school, but he developed and I think his upside is tremendous because he hasn't played much."
Beals is a setter who has been getting so good that his club coach, Chuck Moore, an assistant at USC, said: "It really is amazing the progress he's made in the last few months. It's built up all kinds of confidence, and he's taking ownership of his development."
Beals has been playing baseball and volleyball since his youth.
He tried out for the Mira Costa volleyball team as a freshman at his parents' urging but dropped it when it conflicted with baseball. He kept playing club volleyball to keep his options open. There were weeks in the winter after baseball practice that he'd head to club volleyball practice in the evening.
But the strangest twist of his high school experience was this: In three years, he recalls attending two volleyball matches. He said he was always too busy with baseball or studying (he has a 3.8 grade-point average), but the truth be told, he was reluctant to show up at a volleyball match for fear it might persuade him to throw away his baseball glove.
"I guess there was a bit of jealousy," he said. "I didn't want to see myself not out there."
And then there was walking the hallways of Mira Costa and running into volleyball friends who knew his talents and didn't understand why he was playing baseball.
"They gave me a hard time," Beals said. "The coach would say hi to them and give me a dirty look in a friendly way."
"No, no, I never gave him a nasty wink in the hallway," Mira Costa Coach Mike Ninnis said. "Baseball was kind of his No. 1 sport. Unfortunately, it falls into the same season. You want him to make the decision. You don't want to put unnecessary pressure on him."
Beals figured out his path on Nov. 11 when he signed with UCLA.
"It was pretty breathtaking," he said. "When they offered, I was, 'Wow, I can't believe this.' I finally made it. All my hard work paid off. Even though it wasn't the most traditional route, I still got there."
Beals was the winning pitcher in Mira Costa's baseball playoff win last season,
but his velocity has stayed around 81 to 83 mph and he
finally came to the conclusion he wasn't going to be a major leaguer, let alone a college baseball player.
"I still love baseball," he said. "I'm a big fan."
Last month, when Mira Costa held tryouts for its volleyball team, Beals showed up. He made the team but will have to beat out two senior setters to start. Still, he's looking forward to the big crowds, the adrenaline rush of facing the likes of defending national champion Los Angeles Loyola and perhaps playing for a Southern Section championship.
"I guess I'm just a volleyball player now," he said.