MOSCOW — Austin Buchanan had flown to California for summer volleyball for two years when he had an idea: Why not move there permanently if the opportunity arose?
Buchanan, the son of Idaho volleyball coach Debbie Buchanan, decided at a young age volleyball was his sport of choice.
But with little to no opportunities to play on the Palouse and few scholarship opportunities for men’s volleyball in college, he had to either go all in or find something else to pursue.
“I always loved playing. I think it’s something I always knew I wanted to do but could never do just because there’s no access in this area,” said Austin, who graduated from Monte Vista High School in Danville, Calif., in December before returning to Moscow to be with his family.
“I think it might’ve been eighth grade, we were talking about playing college basketball or something and I think I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to play basketball in college, I want to play volleyball.’”
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Debbie said, laughing.
But the Buchanan family quickly got to work trying to make his dream a reality.
After playing two summers of club volleyball in Sacramento, Calif., Austin moved from Moscow to Danville to go to school and play high school and club volleyball for his final two years. He stayed with a host family for most of the year, going back to Moscow when he could.
The sacrifice and hard work paid off for Austin, who accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Hawaii, where he’ll be a 6-foot-8 setter for the Rainbow Warriors next season.
Men’s volleyball is an equivalency sport, meaning there aren’t full scholarships — the NCAA allows only 4.5 scholarships in the sport. So competition to get on collegiate teams is fierce.
But Austin’s journey from a Moscow kid to a rare spot on a college team goes back to before he can remember.
It’s not hard to see where his love for the game came from.
“He’s been in the gym since he was three days old,” said Debbie, UI’s coach since 2000. “I think the summer when he watched the Olympics, he said, ‘That is what I want to do.’ I thought it would kind of pass, but that was where he stayed. … and he took every opportunity to do that.”
Even at a young age, Austin was a volleyball critic. Sometimes Debbie would scold him if he walked across the court at a Vandal practice when he wasn’t supposed to, but little Austin would say stuff like, “I’ll be fine if they just pass to the target.”
At Idaho matches at Memorial Gym, Austin would watch from behind the team bench, often sitting with the same posture and mannerisms as his mom as he watched her coach the team.
As Austin got older, he tried to play every chance he got. From doubles games at the beach courts at UI with his buddies to pickup games at the Hamilton Indoor Recreation Center in Moscow, he always had a volleyball in his hands.
“He was always off trying to play somewhere,” Debbie said. “He was always in the backyard bouncing a ball off the shed, and on the wall while we cooked he’d be setting against the wall.”
Eventually, his skills caught the eye of Debbie’s UI players. At an Idaho camp one summer when Austin was in eighth grade, a couple players went up to Debbie and told her that her son was the real deal.
“And I’m like ‘really?’ cause I hadn’t been to a lot of his open gym things … so I kind of let him do his thing,” Debbie said. “So I watched him play and I was like, ‘What the heck?’”
Since Austin didn’t have a team, Idaho let Debbie add Austin as a volunteer assistant coach so he could go to the gym and help the team train.
The Buchanans sent some film of Austin to coaches in California and he was able to get a spot on a team.
Austin said it was hard at first being away from home and moving in with strangers at 16 years old. But he was grateful for the opportunity to be fully immersed in a school and city that allowed him the opportunity to thrive in his sport.
As a junior, Buchanan helped Monte Vista to its first league title and a run to the semifinal round in the NorCal state championships.
He earned first-team all-league honors his junior year and twice was invited to the USA Holiday National Training camp, put on by Team USA.
One big match that sticks out to Austin is the time his club team beat the Canadian Youth National team.
“I was playing for NorCal High Performance, basically a regional team, and we beat the Canadian Youth National team in the last set,” Austin said. “I think it ended up being 36-34. It was crazy.”
When it came to college recruiting, it was the effort he put in that set him apart from his peers, Debbie said. He would email college coaches every two weeks and he went on many of his college visits by himself since Debbie was in season with Idaho.
His choices came down to UCLA, USC, Pepperdine, Stanford and Hawaii.
“Hawaii just had something special about it,” Austin said. “I just kind of knew it was the right fit when I was there.
“The volleyball community that they have is unlike any other place in the country. I just knew that was something I wanted to have and it was a place I wanted to play at.”
Debbie said it was hard for her, her husband, Buck, and their younger son, Blake, to be away from Austin for such long periods — they talked on the phone almost every day — but the sacrifices were worth it in the long run.
“I’m just excited for the future ahead of him and to watch him go play and follow his passion in the sport he loves,” Debbie said, “because it doesn’t happen every day that you have those opportunities.”
Wiebe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (208) 883-4624 and on Twitter at @StephanSports.