When 6’7” Maurice Torres made his official visit to Pepperdine, where he is now a senior volleyball star, he was accompanied by family, including his mother, Shelly, and his younger sister, Shaquillah, who is now a pretty good player herself at Arizona.
Shaq, as she’s called, wasn’t just along for the ride. No, Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy wanted Maurice to be able to simply be another kid checking out the school and the volleyball program, but do that, they needed help. They cleared it with the NCAA to have Shaq on hand to translate so Maurice didn’t have to.
And here’s the background: The Torres parents are deaf. Shelly from an illness as an infant; father Michael from a fall as a young boy. Together they have four children – Maurice was third and Shaq the baby – but are since divorced. Interestingly, each has remarried to a deaf person. Accordingly, Maurice and Shaq, who both hear, are proficient in sign language and a big part of the deaf community.
But back to that visit on which Shaq was brought along to tell Dunphy what her mom was signing.
They finally got to Dunphy’s office, where the legendary coach told Maurice that he was offering him a scholarship and the offer was on the table for as long as he needed to decide.
“I looked at his mother and all of a sudden she started crying,” Dunphy recalled. “And I turned to his sister and said, ‘You have to tell me what’s going on.’ And then she gets all choked up.”
So he turned to Maurice, who told Dunphy that “my mom now knows that this is where I’ll be going to school and I’ll basically be leaving the nest.”
And it wasn’t all that far, considering that Riverside, where the Torres family lives, is just 85 miles from Malibu.
“It was pretty touching,” Dunphy said. “I think over the years I’ve had some kids that are tight with their families and tight families, but I don’t think there’s any tighter than theirs.”
That also goes for Maurice and Shaq.
“He is amazing,” Shaq said simply about her brother, an opposite who likely will be in the national-team mix. He’s been part of the USA youth system for six years.
“He has a pretty good arm, pretty good legs, and he’s going to have some options professionally,” said Dunphy, the 1988 gold-medal-winning men’s Olympic coach who has won four NCAA men’s titles.
And it’s not lost on opponents who see an emotional and fiery competitor.
Said BYU coach Chris McGown, “His arm is wonderful. He’s got this huge arm and hits a super heavy ball but he does it with good range and I think he sees the block really well.
“You’ll try to get some patterns on him and it’s tough because he sees the block and goes where he wants to relative to the block.”
In this week’s MPSF stats, Torres is second in kills at 4.19 per set, fourth in aces per set (.37) and the leaders in points per set (5.01).
“And he’s continually developing,” McGown continued. “He’s added some nuances to his approach to attacking the block. There are subtleties he didn’t have before. He had this cannon and he was just going to blow things up with it and now he understands I don’t have to hit every ball hard. I can take some pace off, I can chip around the edges. I can get kills without hitting the ball as hard as I can.
“That’s when a guy like that gets scary, when it doesn’t always have to be as hard as he can hit it. He’s quite a nice player.”
Dunphy said he’s improved as a blocker, too, third on Pepperdine’s team with a total of 67, five solo, for a team that heading into Thursday’s match with Cal State Northridge is 12-9 overall, 11-9 in the MPSF and ranked fifth in the country.
“His defense is still a work in progress,” Dunphy said with a smile.
Maurice understands the source. “Marv is a legend,” he said. “He’s one of the best coaches anybody could ever play for.”
Shaq, a 6’1” right side/outside hitter, had 156 kills, 50 blocks, and 32 digs for the Wildcats last season. Arizona, a team without a senior in 2012, finished 15-16, 8-12 in the Pac-12.
“She works so hard and harder than I do,” Maurice said. “She’s been through so much for someone so young and the way she handles it is unbelievable. She’s had two knee surgeries, a shoulder injury, going to school in Orange County for a year by herself and she is just a fighter. She does an unbelievable amount of community service. She’s all about helping other people out.”
Volleyball wasn’t on the forefront for the Torres kids. Their mom was a standout multi-sport athlete who is now a principal at a deaf high school in Riverside. Their dad was a standout basketball player who played a Gallaudet and professionally in Puerto Rico. He’s stayed involved in basketball and is also officiating.
It was through both parents’ love for basketball that they named Shaquillah, who, interestingly, has never met Shaquille O’Neal.
The oldest Torres daughter, Sabrina, played small-college volleyball, and the next child, Suzanne, played small-college soccer.
While Shaq was exposed to volleyball at a younger age, Maurice was a freshman in high school when a friend, Brad Moore, talked him into playing on his team with the boys.
“I thought it might be just something fun to do, but once I got into it I loved it,” Maurice said.
Then everything shifted when Maurice had a chance to change high schools. After his sophomore year, he left Riverside for Orange Country Lutheran, which Shaq also decided to do the next year.
“I told my mom I wanted to play high school volleyball and I wanted to play with the guys who played with my club team and most of them went to Orange Country Lutheran,” Maurice said.
And just consider what their day was like:
They would wake up by 4:30, get a ride from their mom to the train and take the Metrolink for 45 minutes, where they would get picked up for school.
Sometimes their mom would come to Anaheim and pick them up, but more often than not they took the train home.
“If anything it prepared me for college and time management,” Shaq said. “It wasn’t the easiest schedule. You have to plan around everything. I was fortunate in that I was on the train as compared to a car, so I could study on the train. But I wouldn’t get home until 8, 9 o’clock at night and have to wake up at 4 the very next morning.
“It was very tiring by even the middle of the day. But it was definitely worth it and I don’t think I would be where I would be now if I hadn’t made the switch.”
It’s worth noting that she’s never been on a train since.
Maurice, a big leaper with a powerful arm, won a club national championship in 2009 and was a member of the Volleyball magazine Fab 50 that same year.
“He was on everybody’s radar,” first-year UC Irvine coach David Kniffin said. “Strictly from an athletic viewpoint, we knew he was going to be in the mix and that he’d be somebody who was competing for championships. Once we got to know the kid a little bit it piqued our interest even more, because he’s such a great kid.”
Last year he was a second-team AVCA All-American and first-team All-MPSF.
One thing both kids do is appreciate that they live in two worlds, hearing and deaf.
“Mom put us in day care right away to be with kids who are hearing,” Shaq said. “So were always involved in both communities. Always.”
Not that it was easy.
“There’s definitely a language barrier when you don’t completely understand a full language when you’re thrown into that world,” Maurice said. “But on the other hand, it was awesome, because all four of us kids could sign before we could speak. We understood sign language more than we understood standard English.
“But it was awesome being thrown into the deaf community. And I think the deaf community is one of those unsung heroes of the world. Not many people know that much about them and I think there are certain stigmas about them and certain perceptions, but they’re just like us. They just can’t hear.”
Added Shaq, “It makes me appreciate everything I have. You get the closeness of the deaf community and how close they are.”
All of which has to make any volleyball fan or anyone who knows the Torres clan that they’re part of something special.
“It’s funny because all the guys on my teams have always loved my family,” Maurice said. “After a match here, you will see guys going up and giving my mom hugs and my sisters are giving hugs.”
“People always ask me if my mom screams during the matches at the gym. I tell them you have no idea. She’s the loudest person in the gym and doesn’t recognize it. You find the loudest person in the gym and it’s my mom. And my sisters are right there with them.
“They’re my biggest fans and my biggest critics and I love it. I love my family dynamic. We’re really close.”
No wonder Dunphy says simply, “When you’re with him for seconds, not minutes, you know that he’s this really, really neat person.
“He has a big heart. You can’t miss that.”