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W. Aurora grad McKee riding great Waves at Pepperdine

To say Matt McKee's world has changed would be a slight understatement. Two time zones away -- from West Aurora High School to Pepperdine University -- life has taken on an entirely new look.

One constant -- it continues to be all good. Success seems to follow the 2005 West grad, particularly on the volleyball court.

After leading West to a fifth place finish two years ago in the state tournament, McKee is part of another winner. Pepperdine, which won the NCAA men's volleyball championship in 2005, is on the brink of another title. The Waves (25-1), ranked No. 1 in the country, are riding a 22-game win streak -- a single-season school record -- and the overwhelming favorite to win this week's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, which carries an automatic NCAA bid.

In that regard, it's exactly the way McKee envisioned his college career unfolding when he chose this paradisiacal campus on the Pacific. One of the nation's top-rated outside hitters in high school, McKee was a Volleyball Magazine Top 50 recruit and selected Pepperdine over Pacific, UCLA and Ohio State.

Even with his glowing credentials, however, McKee realized his role would change drastically in a program which has produced some of the best men's volleyball players in the land. He played little as a newcomer and has seen only occasional action in his sophomore season, serving as a blocking specialist for a Waves team which returned nearly all of its players from last year.

McKee was prepared for the seismic adjustment which awaited him, but even so, it hit him as a jolt during his freshman year.

Consider that in his senior year at West, McKee slammed home 696 kills -- far-and-away the Illinois single-season record.

As a freshman at Pepperdine, McKee recorded one kill.

One kill.

"That's OK," McKee said. "I understood it was going to be that way because of the role I would have to play my first couple of years."

Understand, too, that McKee could have gone to a less prestigious program, been an instant starter and elevated to the role of go-to guy right away. But he sacrificed personal glory for the chance to play among the nation's best.

"That's why I'm here," McKee said last week from Malibu, Calif. "When I chose Pepperdine, I knew I'd be on a team full of great players. I haven't played as much as I'd like, but practicing every day against some of the best players in the country has done great things for me."

McKee isn't the biggest guy on campus anymore, like he was at West. Even at 6-6, "I'm just average height on this team," he says.

And that's made him readjust his game. He can no longer rely on sheer size and dominance, like he did in high school. Learning how to finesse his hitting power into a more vertical swing has been part of McKee's upgrade.

"I've gone against (All-Americans) Andy Hein and Jonathan Winder -- some of the best blockers in the nation -- and that's done wonders for my hitting," McKee said. "You don't see blockers like that in high school, where half the guys are under 6-foot. College is a whole different game; I've had to change my swing and hit high all the time.

"And the speed of the game -- huge change. Everything is so much quicker and faster. It took me a while to adjust to that, but now it's just a matter of getting on the floor more so I can get into a rhythm."

His time appears to be nearing. McKee will be just one of three outside hitters (out of seven on this year's team) to return next year and says there's a "good chance" he'll be stepping into a prominent role at outside hitter.

So that means he's hitting the beach after the season -- to advance his game, of course. McKee will remain at Pepperdine through May, then return to Aurora and possibly spend some of his workout time at North Avenue Beach in Chicago.

"What I really need work on is ball control and passing; playing beach volleyball will definitely help me improve those two things," McKee said. "I think my hitting and blocking is there but ball control and passing are huge for me to become a complete player at outside hitter."

While his volleyball experience has included trips to Europe and Hawaii in the past year, McKee hasn't quite become a complete Californian, dude.

"I've done some body surfing, but I'm a little too tall to balance on a surf board," McKee said.

And he hasn't forgotten from where he came.

"I love Pepperdine," McKee said. "The only bad part is that I don't get much of a chance to come back home. I miss all my friends and family, but not the weather.

"When my parents came out here, they kept commenting about how beautiful the weather was. It's like that every day. I guess I'd forgotten."

Sunny and 80 degrees every day?

"Life is good," McKee said.

(original story at: http://www.dailyherald.com/localsports/story.asp?id=304746)