USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring each of the 12 finalists for the Gatorade Athlete of the Year award during a two-week series leading into the July 15 announcement in Los Angeles. The award is given to the top male and female among the 12 finalists, who won their respective sport’s national player of the year award earlier in the 2013-14 school year. USA TODAY High School Sports administrates the nationwide selection process in collaboration with Gatorade.
Taylor McQuillin can tactically whip a softball past a gifted power hitter at 62 MPH then turnaround and crank a pitch 200 feet clear over the outfield fence all in the same inning. Plus, as a second-degree black belt in taekwondo, she can shatter a wooden board with one punch or nail a flawless roundhouse just for kicks; no pun intended.
McQuillin was named Gatorade Player of the Year for the former, which alone is impressive, but it eclipses “mind-boggling” when you consider that McQuillin is completely blind in her left eye.
McQuillin was born with Duane Syndrome, a rare, congenital condition that caused the blindness in her left eye and partial hearing loss in her left ear.
“She’s obviously overcome a lot,” McQuillin’s father Ron said. “What she’s been able to accomplish is truly amazing.”
Not amazing “for a player with a handicap;” McQuillin’s already turned in a resume that most players dream about accomplishing over the course of their four-year high school career.
This past season McQuillin, a 5-foot-8 rising senior left-handed pitcher, posted a 25-1 record with a 0.69 ERA and led Mission Viejo (Mission Viejo, Calif.) (26-1) to the Southern Section, Division II tournament title. McQuillin struck out 316 batters and walked just 18 in 173.2 innings pitched. She also managed four no-hitters, two perfect games and held opponents to a .120 batting average.
McQuillin was equally dominant at the plate batting .323 with one home run and a .525 slugging percentage.
The operative question is as simple as it is complex: How?
“I’ve never had two eyes that I could see out of,” McQuillin said. “So, to me, I don’t have feel like I have a handicap because I never knew what it was like to see out of both eyes. I can’t say it would be better if I could see out of my left eye. I only learned to play one way. Growing up I never really dwelled on the fact that I couldn’t see out of my left eye; I was just trying to be the best player I could be.”
Ron and McQuillin’s mother, Petra, knew that after five unsuccessful surgeries before age 6, “normal” would take on a whole new meaning for McQuillin. Their message was simple: No special treatment.
“I remember when she was first starting out she’d mess up and look over at us and we’d just be like, ‘It’s OK, you’ve got it,” Ron recalled. “We never treated her different or went easier on her because of her eye. To be honest, when she first started out we thought all of the girls would be a lot better than her. They weren’t.”
Not much has changed in the last 10 years.
As one of the country’s most elite players, McQuillin’s already committed to play at Arizona. She originally committed to Oklahoma State as a freshman, but switched to stay closer to Ron, who suffers from an enlarged heart.
“We came to the realization that I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of traveling,” Ron said. “And she wanted to stay closer so we could come watch her. I left it up to her and it was traumatic for her to have to decommit because she doesn’t like to let anyone down. But I was proud of her for making her own, mature decision.”
Perspective prevailed for McQuillin.
“For me it was a no-brainer,” McQuillin said. “Family is really important to me and it was tough at first, but I grew up an Arizona fan and I’m really blessed to have this opportunity. I think that overall it benefited me in the long run. No matter what, I always try and take a positive approach. My message to other players or anyone who’s facing any type of adversity, not just in sports but also in life, is to never let someone tell you that you can’t do something. Prove people wrong. You’ll be successful if you go 100 percent at your goal. If what I overcame can help the next person, I think that’s awesome!”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY