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A pair of ASU volleyball players stand shoulder to shoulder in a huddle. Both are 6-foot-2, both are adorned with similar looking smiles on their faces and both sport a Phoenix tattoo on the outside of their left calf.
Immediately, this correspondence grabbed my attention.
Who exactly are these two? Are they sisters? Cousins, maybe? What does the tattoo signify?
I knew exactly who I wanted to talk to after practice.
The duo with the matching Phoenix’s turned out to be middle blocker Maddie McLaughlin and opposite hitter Marta Levinska.
Although the two seemed similar on the surface level, I quickly discerned that their paths to reaching the Mullett Arena court were both unique.
Two journeys that merged into one, symbolized by a Phoenix.
Before there was two, there was one
Before discussing the McLaughlin and Levinska as a duo, it is important to understand each one individually
“We had much more in common (than we thought).” McLaughlin said. “Not surface level, maybe you know, we are different people with different personalities, but we share a lot more than I had expected.”
Levinska came to Tempe from Riga, Latvia with a distinguished reputation that followed her overseas.
Upon entering her freshman season in 2020, Levinska was the two-year reigning best women’s volleyball player in Latvia and the best player and opposite hitter in the Baltic league.
Levinska was the “face of volleyball” in Latvia, as McLaughlin would put it.
“It was COVID (and I) didn’t get to go on official visits so I kind of just made the decision (to come to ASU),” Levinska said. “I don’t know, basically intuition. When I got offers from Arizona State I could imagine going there right away.”
As a freshman for the Sun Devils Levinska immediately began contributing to the team. The outside hitter appeared in every 2020 match, landing her a spot on the All-Pac-12 Freshman team.
Additionally, she led the ASU squad in blocks and finished her freshman season with 245 kills and 61 blocks registering the second highest totals in those areas for the team.
From there, Levinska’s career only went up.
During her sophomore and junior seasons, she was named to the All-Pac-12 honorable mention list twice, was named the Latvian Women’s Volleyball Player of the Year and reached a milestone of 1,000 career kills.
Now, as a senior, Levinska has already been named to the 2023 Preseason All-Pac-12 team, was named the MVP of the FGCU Tournament and Beale Street Challenge and was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week after the team defeated Washington and Arizona.
As for the graduate student in her final year, McLaughlin traveled across the country from East Aurora, New York. Her path to finding consistent footing on the court was much different than her other half.
While attending East Aurora High School, McLaughlin battled Lymes disease for three years, putting her out of athletics for the time being.
“I had a very unconventional history with volleyball. I got to it late, then I missed three years in high school because I was pretty sick,” McLaughlin said. “There was a point in time I didn’t know if I could return to sports and play again.
Granted her struggles, she and her team won a Sectional Championship and went 12-0 her senior year at Aurora. She led her team in kills per set, total kills and was second in total blocks and hit percentage.
Before ASU, McLaughin attended SUNY Geneseo in New York, where she was the 2018 SUNYAC Rookie of the Year and second team in 2019.
She was finding imminent success with SUNY and was eager to make some bigger moves in college volleyball.
“I just sent out like 50 emails, you know, hoping I could get the attention of someone,” McLaughlin said.
Ultimately catching the attention of ASU, McLaughlin transferred after her sophomore year at SUNY and struggled to find consistent playing time from her junior year to her graduate year, appearing in 68 total sets.
In her second and final graduate year, the returner is finally getting the season she has been working for over the past few seasons.
During the 2023 season, she landed her first career start for ASU against FGCU, recorded a career high of seven blocks and 10 kills, helping lead the Sun Devils’ defensive moves at middle blocker.
Two skilled volleyball players, one from Latvia and the other from the East Coast seemingly lacked many commonalities at first glance – and the two are the first to admit it.
The cliche of an unlikely duo comes to fruition
Upon first impressions, McLaughlin and Levinska believed there was little likelihood of getting along, let alone forming a fast friendship.
The type of friendship that is eternalized in the form of matching tattoos. That is lasting dedication.
“They always do these, like ‘Signed!’ pictures to announce the people that are new to Sun Devil Volleyball,” McLaughlin said. “I saw her picture and I read her bio and I was like, there’s no shot we’re going to be friends.”
Levinska was quick to coincide.
“When I first saw Maddie and we had a few zoom calls and stuff, I thought she’s kind of the smart and kind of quiet girl that everyone likes,” Levinksa said.
Although the two hold an age difference of nearly two years, yet another reason as to why Levinska did not think they would get on, the pair both arrived at ASU at the same time in 2020.
The two had no other options but to hang out with other team members per team-COVID restrictions and mostly everything was closed down at the time including in-person classes.
With both of them being from out of Arizona territory, they wanted to explore the place that they would call home over the next few years.
“We just sort of started hanging out and we had this thing where every Sunday we’d go for a hike,” McLaughlin said. “We’d pick a different spot around Phoenix and just started exploring together. Then we started just hanging out more and more and bonding.”
The unlikely pair began to spend most of their days together. So much so, they opted to take it to the next level and share a living space, only to discover that their connection far exceeded their initial expectations.
Upon learning that the two live with each other on top of practicing together and spending elected free-time with one another, I asked if they are ever not attached at the hip.
“Uh, no,” they both said with a laugh.
“When she goes to class, it’s like, ‘oh my god, I haven’t seen her for three hours,’” McLaughlin said. “We spend pretty much 24/7 together and you would think you would start to hate each other, but it just hasn’t happened, which is really a miracle, I just don’t get sick of her.”
To not get sick of the person you spend all of your time with truly is a special sign. Then came the decision to put it into permanent ink.
Rising from the ashes
The two were walking down the street one day when they passed by a tattoo parlor.
Levinska exclaimed that she wanted to get a tattoo as she did not have any at the time. McLaughlin also was bare of ink when she agreed with Levinska
“I think we should get matching tattoos,” McLaughlin said.
Being their first tattoos, they wanted to make sure that they thought through their decision. Over the next few months, the two bounced ideas back and forth until McLaughlin threw out the idea of a Phoenix.
“Once we realized that our goals were so aligned we felt like this is a perfect way to sort of represent our friendship,” McLaughlin said.
There are multiple aspects of the tattoo for each person, making it that much more special.
A Phoenix represents not only the place that they met, but is also the universal sign of rising from the ashes and overcoming obstacles.
For McLaughlin, it represented her struggles with overcoming Lymes disease during high school and her journey to making it Division 1.
For Levinska, it represented the difficulty of being so far away from home and growing and leaving Phoenix a different person.
It is the perfect tattoo with so much interpersonal representation as well as personal meaning.
“As we’ve become closer and closer friends, we’ve realized that we have the same goals, and we’ve kind of inspired each other to realize that we’re capable of achieving those,” McLaughlin said. “So it just felt like the perfect, I don’t know, symbolic representation of that.”
The end of an era and the beginning of another
Quickly realizing that graduation was lingering for the two talented players, their 24/7 time spent together is quickly approaching a conclusion.
Their time spent trying new vegan places to eat, thanks to a Netflix documentary Levinska sent to McLaughlin and traveling cross-country while living the college life is wrapping up.
It was by chance that the pair both moved to Arizona in search of new surroundings. The palm trees, the weather and the thought of the West Coast drew them in.
That time is coming to a close and the inseparable duo will be parting ways.
Well, kind of.
It is a lot easier when they both have the same post-grad plans of playing professionally.
“That’s really I think what connected us,” McLaughlin said. “When we both came here, I think kind of in the background we had that dream, but we didn’t have maybe the same feelings of self efficacy or self belief that were required to do that.”
Teaming up together to reach their dreams of playing professional, the two are finally in the home stretch.
Lucky for them, professional schedules line up with one another, leaving them with reflecting schedules of time off and giving them plenty of time to spend with one another.
“I think we’re both gonna play in Europe too, so we’d be a lot closer,” Levinska said. “I feel like we will cross paths either way… definitely won’t be like now but, we’ll have plenty of time and opportunities.”
Two best friends playing professionally in Europe? Sounds like the ideal future for the duo.
Before then, the two agree that they have one huge goal left together with ASU volleyball.
“Make the tournament,” they both said in unison.
Plain and simple.
They are interested in earning some Pac-12 upsets in the process, but the two really hope to “go out with a bang.”
With a 17-1 record and a 5-1 record in the Pac-12, this goal is well within grasp for the duo and their Sun Devil team.
It looks like their journey is not coming to an end, but is taking on a new, fresh start.
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