When the Tulane volleyball team won its National Invitational Volleyball Championship second-round match Friday, Cal Baptist coach Branden Higa had one question for Tulane coach Jim Barnes in the handshake line.
He asked him if Kaylie McHugh was the best libero in the country.
McHugh, a junior from Davie, Florida, was that impressive, racking up a game-high 23 digs, adding 11 assists and diving all over the floor to stifle the Lancers’ attack.
It does not take much to wind up Barnes, Tulane's third-year coach, on McHugh’s value, and he saw his opportunity.
“I said, ‘Honestly, she’s one of the very best in the country,’ Barnes said. “And I go, get this, not one (American Athletic Conference) coach voted her All-Conference. She didn’t even make second-team All-Conference. He said, ‘That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Please tell her she’s the best I’ve seen all year.’ "
McHugh and the Green Wave (27-8) will continue their quest for a tournament title, playing Valparaiso (27-10) in a 7 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal at Devlin Fieldhouse. Teamwork propelled Tulane to a breakthrough season, but the diminutive McHugh, who says she is 5-foot-4 despite being listed at 5-6, has stood taller than the rest in some ways.
Already ranking second (594) and third (592) on the school’s all-time, single-season list for digs, she will surpass the totals from her freshman and sophomore seasons if she equals her Cal Baptist performance against Valparaiso.
But she is more than just a defensive specialist, the primary role for a libero, who by NCAA rules is not allowed to attack from the front row.
She is third on the team with 165 assists.
She also is the single-season ace record-holder for the AAC with 58, breaking the old mark of 55 with a deceptive floater rather using raw power.
“If you know the game, it’s serve and pass,” Barnes said. “She’s by far the best in both of those. “She’s the motor that drives this team.”
While her tangible numbers are good, her competitiveness is off the charts, too.
“Ultimately those are the difference-makers in your gym,” Barnes said. “She shows up with an edge every day and expects it of her teammates. Her mentality is what’s gotten this program as much as anything to the next level. Everybody wants to join her in being that competitive.”
McHugh credits her family for her attitude, saying her three older brothers, ages 35, 32 and 30 to her 20, toughened her up and forced her never to back down. She was born for this role. Her father is a volleyball coach and her mother was an All-America performer at Central Florida.
They own a club team that competes in beach and indoor volleyball, so McHugh grew up in the sport.
“This has been the dream since Day 1,” she said. “We’ve always been around the TV watching it and saying that’s where I want to go one day. I know my family is always going to support me.”
McHugh chose Tulane because she loved the campus and wanted a good education, adding the previous coaching staff was not worried about her height. When Barnes was hired, they forged a good relationship quickly.
He liked everything he saw when he scouted her at a club match.
She liked everything she saw at his first Tulane practice.
“I had no idea what to expect from him, but he supported us and did everything he could for us,” she said. “I recognized that right off the bat, and I respected him ever since.”
For Tulane, a potential home semifinal against the winner of Clemson/College of Charleston awaits as it tries to earn respect in the volleyball community after missing an NCAA tournament bid. The Wave can match its mark for most victories in a season this century (28), achieved three times previously, by beating Valparaiso.
“It would be really good for us,” McHugh said. “It would show a lot of people that we were meant to be in the (NCAA) tournament. Everyone is still motivated to win this tournament.”