ATLANTA, Ga. - Nine-year-old Luke McGrew usually doesn't know the score of the match, the finer points of volleyball or the significance of each play. The one thing he always knows though is where his favorite player is on the floor, Georgia State's number eight. That's because that jersey is worn by GSU's starting setter and his big sister, sophomore Kaylee McGrew.

"He's right there with us at every match," says Christine McGrew, Luke and Kaylee's mother. "He puts his Georgia State shirt on and we'll paint Kaylee's number on his face. He absolutely loves to be there."

It turns out that Kaylee, GSU's assist leader on the court, lends an even bigger hand off it when it comes to young Luke.

Luke McGrew lives with Down syndrome, a chromosomal condition he's had since birth that alters his intellectual development. Luke is in third grade, enrolled in an elementary class that caters to special needs children near where the McGrew family resides in Kennesaw, Ga., about 25 miles from the GSU campus.

"When he was a few months old, he wasn't responding normally," Kaylee remembers. "The nurse thought there was a possibly an issue when he was born but we didn't know for sure."

Before long, Luke was diagnosed. Christine began to research everything she could on the condition and enlisted the help of a therapist to work with them at home.

"Every little step seemed like it was a huge deal," says Kaylee. "For him to roll over or sit up, it took a longer than other kids. I remember when he started walking, it was crazy. And now he's running all over the place, we're constantly chasing him!"

Nine years and many obstacles later, Luke still faces challenges but is able to live like many other kids his age. He plays video games, is an avid movie fan and makes the occasional hunting trip with the McGrew's other two sons.

Kaylee's journey to GSU and success on the court are thanks in no small part to her relationship with her brother. In addition to the many hours helping him at home, Kaylee has made field trips with Luke's classes, volunteered with his sports teams team and even supervised a dance for special needs children.

"I've been like his second mom," says Kaylee, who is 10 years older. "When I come home, he doesn't like to sleep in his bed or with his brothers- he comes and sleeps with me. He likes to cuddle with me on the couch. He always comes to me when he gets in trouble!"

Seeing Kaylee go off to college last year wasn't easy for the McGrews, especially for Luke, who spent Kaylee's very first night in the dormitory with her.

"He didn't want to leave," says Christine. "He wanted to go to college with Kaylee."

That first night didn't come at GSU, but rather at NAIA University of Mobile where Kaylee began her volleyball career in Alabama, over five hours away from Atlanta. She starred on the court as a freshman (including a school-record 15 aces in one match) and it didn't take Kaylee long to realize she was ready for the next challenge.

As it turned out, an opportunity would soon be available to come back to Atlanta.

 

"Kaylee expressed interest in transferring to GSU to Panther assistant Kelly Audia, who had coached Kaylee at the club level. The timing was right, as the team looked to add an additional setter. It didn't take Kaylee long to make the decision, especially considering the proximity to her family."

 

"I think it took her a semester being away to realize it was okay to come home," says Christine. "It's so nice to have her back in the area and of course Luke is very excited to get to see her more."

Movie nights are once again a special event for Kaylee and Luke around town. And for dinner?

"Chicken, french fries, Coke, toy, ranch dressing," is Luke's order, one the McGrews say he repeats at every drive-thru window. It's a little predictability in a world that hasn't had much.

"It's not always sugar and cream and happiness," says Christine. "It can be stressful sometimes. It has been a struggle but it's taught the other children, including Kaylee, so many lessons."

"I remember when I worked with his baseball team," Kaylee recalls, "Luke would run around, sit in the grass, climb the fence- anything except play baseball. More than anything he's taught me patience. He has been such a blessing to us and taught us all so much. I wouldn't have him any other way."

The family would use hand signals to help communicate with Luke at a young age. Later, Kaylee jumped at the chance to learn sign language in high school.

"She took right to it," says Christine. "That's something I would encourage her down the road to look into as a career."

Christine says Kaylee is a natural working with children thanks to the experiences she's had in her own life.

"Any time she does a clinic for younger kids, they all flock to her," says Christine. "I think it's just her demeanor and what it takes to be with Luke."

"He's needed so much attention that it's made me want to work with kids and help them progress just like he has," Kaylee says.

As far as Kaylee's volleyball career, that began when she was in 7th grade. At every step of the way, Luke's been cheering her on.

"He's always there," says Kaylee. "He doesn't always know what's going on but he's at every home match. We have so many of our team pictures over the years where Luke has jumped right in. When he goes to college, we know he's going to go watch volleyball!"

These days, Luke cheers on a GSU team that's headed for its first Colonial Athletic Association Tournament since 2005. Sister Kaylee, and her patience in setting up the Panther offense, have been crucial. She leads the Panthers with over nine assists per set in her first season with the team and is fifth among all CAA players.

Kaylee set a career high with 66 assists against George Mason Oct. 28 and afterwards got big congratulations and another photo shoot with Luke on GSU's home court.

The Panthers' quest for their first CAA championship begins Friday in Newark, Del., against James Madison. Though the team will be playing over 700 miles away, back in Atlanta one young fan will be excited to see just how far number eight can help guide her team.