From walk-on to All-American: Leo Durkin defies the odds

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Leo Durkin sets a ball against George Mason. Durkin was named an All-American Honorable Mention in 2016. (Ari Davis)
Leo Durkin sets a ball against George Mason. Durkin was named an All-American Honorable Mention in 2016. (Ari Davis)

BYU setter Leo Durkin stands laser focused as he awaits the next serve. He isn’t thinking about the thousands of screaming fans in the Smith Fieldhouse, or the news article that will come out the next day. He isn’t thinking about what his friends and family are going to think of him after the match, what awards he might win, or the end of the season. He isn’t even thinking about the score.

The only thing on Durkin’s mind are the matchups across the net, reading the spin of the serve, watching the angles of his teammate’s forearms and making sure he sets a clean ball to his hitters. His focus is on taking everything one point at a time.

“I don’t notice the crowd at all,” Durkin said. “All I hear is the voices of my coaches and my teammates. I try to block everything out and just focus on exactly what I need to do.”

For the 2016 All-American Honorable Mention, seeing the Smith Fieldhouse court during a game wasn’t even a certainty, having started his BYU career as a walk-on.

Durkin grew up in Las Vegas and played volleyball at Centennial High School. He also played for a club team called Vegas Volleyball.

After high school he was fortunate enough to earn himself a walk-on spot on the BYU volleyball team as a setter. He red-shirted his first season and didn’t get to play.

He then set volleyball aside for two years to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New York City. He spent most of his time knocking on doors and teaching people in the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

He wasn’t sure whether he would get his spot on the team back after returning from his mission, but a spot opened up and Durkin was able to fill it.

Durkin saw limited playing time in his first season after returning from his mission in 2015. BYU had two returning setters with significant game experience that saw most of the playing time, but limited playing time never discouraged him.

“I just figured if I kept working hard good things would happen for me,” Durkin said. “I wanted to make it as difficult as possible for the seniors and starters everyday in practice.”

Durkin’s coaches recognized his potential and the hard work that he put into helping the team succeed.

Ari Davis
Leo Durkin elevates to serve a ball against George Mason. Durkin started every game in 2016. (Ari Davis)

“There are kids that get it,” said Jaylen Reyes, assistant coach and former teammate of Durkin. “They understand the process and they understand that it’s about team first, and there’s a process to helping the team get better and earning playing time. Leo kept working hard and knew his time would come eventually. He kept working hard and didn’t let bad things affect his work ethic and desire to improve.”

Durkin’s hard work paid off and he started every game for the Cougars in the 2016 season. He helped lead the team to a 27-4 overall record, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season and tournament titles and a second-place finish at the NCAA national tournament.

Durkin recorded 1,117 assists, setting the Cougars to a .360 hitting clip, one of the highest in the country. He also recorded 142 digs and 73 total blocks this season.

Durkin was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American lists as an Honorable Mention.

“Leo is one of the hardest working guys on the team,” BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead said. “He is a great example to everybody on our team on having your goals and objectives and plans in order, and striving to accomplish them.”

Durkin attributes his success to the hard work and help of his teammates.

“Those are team awards,” Durkin said. “Without Price (Jarman), Jake (Langlois), Ben (Patch), my coaches, I wouldn’t accomplish anything. Volleyball is a true team sport and the success of awards like that belong to the whole team.”

Durkin has stepped away from volleyball for the summer and is selling pest control door-to-door in Orange County, California. He will continue to train on his own until he rejoins the team in the fall when he returns for school.

But even though he won’t be playing a lot of volleyball while working this summer, that doesn’t mean he won’t be expected to prepare and come back better in 2017.

“Experience this last season and off-season in his prep is going to be his biggest teacher,” Olmstead said. “He will hopefully continue to work harder than he did last season and come back with a better perspective of the whole picture. He is an outstanding worker.”

Price Jarman, Leo Durkin, and Brenden Sander wait for a serve against USC. All three Cougars return in 2017. (Jaren Wilkey)
Price Jarman, Leo Durkin and Brenden Sander wait for a serve against USC. All three Cougars will return in the 2017 season. (Jaren Wilkey)

Durkin wasn’t quite satisfied with the finish to the 2016 season after the Cougars lost to Ohio State in the national championship. He wants to come back better and help the team reach new heights in 2017.

“We will take things one day at a time, but we will want to get back to that national championship again and win it this time,” Durkin said.

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