[Noozhawk’s note: Like many other Harvard applicants, Will McCracken won’t find out whether he has been offered admission until April 1. An earlier version of this story was incorrect and the article has been corrected below.]

At first glance, Dos Pueblos High senior Will McCracken appears to be a walking contradiction. He is half African-American and half Irish, with a Hawaiian stepfather who helped raise him since birth. He is an intellectual with a career 4.0 GPA who wants to major in biochemistry in college, but he is also an accomplished hula dancer and a standout volleyball player with a soft set and an impressive 32-inch vertical leap. He is modest and soft-spoken, yet he exhibits the makings of a true leader in and out of athletics.

This fall, Will hopes to add one more contradiction to the list: Goleta native and lifelong West Coaster and Harvard University-bound Ivy Leaguer-in-training. Cambridge, Mass., get ready for one wicked smart California kid!

“The ironic thing is that applying to Harvard started out as sort of a joke,” said Will, who turned 18 in December.

When he was 14, Will was sitting in the stands cheering on his older sister, Nicole, at one of her club volleyball tournaments. The father of one of Nicole’s teammates asked him if he was looking at any colleges yet. Will sardonically replied, “Yeah, I’m probably going to go to Harvard!” It turned out that Jim Villanueva, the man who had asked him the fateful question, happened to be a Harvard alumnus whose underdeveloped sense of sarcasm resulted in a serious conversation about Will’s possible admission to the prestigious university.

Will was so intrigued by the conversation that he decided that night that Harvard would be his No. 1 choice when applying to colleges.

Simply making the decision to attend a school like Harvard by no means guarantees acceptance, however, and Will knew he had a long road ahead of him if he intended to fulfill his dream. Fortunately, the ambitious youngster was no stranger to accomplishing the unlikely.

In third grade, due in part to the influence of his stepfather, William Evans, who is of Hawaiian descent, Will took up hula dancing. After only a few lessons, his instructor was so impressed with his burgeoning dance skills that she convinced him to join a competitive local hula troop. Two years later, Will’s troop was invited to an exclusive hula competition in Hawaii — it was the first time a group from the mainland had ever been extended an invitation. Although the troop finished near the bottom of its division, the experience gave Will the confidence to always follow his heart, even if it led him a different direction from his peers.

These days, those peers look up to Will for his drive to walk his own path.

“A lot of my friends are kind of shocked that that I would want to go so far away, but they’ve all been very supportive,” he said. “They mostly just joke with me and say, ‘When you make it big, just don’t forget about us!’”

And “big” is precisely the direction in which Will hopes to be headed. If accepted, in addition to taking on an extremely challenging biochemistry major, the 6-footer said he plans to try out for Harvard’s volleyball team. The Crimson’s head coach, Brian Baise, is a graduate of Westlake High in Thousand Oaks, one of Dos Pueblos’ rivals. When he found out Will was playing volleyball for the Chargers, Baise told him he remembered the athletic talent that the high school had always turned out, and that he was excited about the possibility of Will starting as a true freshman during a rebuilding season next year.

Will and the Chargers hosted the 35th annual Dos Pueblos Invitational this weekend. Dos Pueblos went undefeated in pool play but fell to Bellarmine Prep of Tacoma, Wash., the 35-team tournament’s eventual champion. Click here for the Presidio Sports story.

Like most things to this point in his life, Will made his blossoming volleyball career possible through desire and discipline. When he made the serious transition to volleyball from hula in the seventh grade, his first coach gave him a lukewarm review.

“My first volleyball coach told me, ‘Don’t even worry about hitting … you’re going to be a setter for life,’ so of course I wanted to prove him wrong,” Will recalled.

To do that, he began taking plyometrics classes in the sand at East Beach to help with his jumping abilities. He now boasts a 32-inch vertical leap to go along with his soft hands. But Will admits that at just 6 feet tall, he is still a setting specialist.

In the meantime, Will is busy setting himself up for success. He has applied for a multitude of grants to help take the financial pressure off of his mother, Vickie, including from the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara and the Gates Millennium Scholarship Fund, which is designed to help minority students. Will says medicine has always fascinated him and that, after graduation, he would love to go into the field of medical research or pharmacology.

Vickie McCracken was originally opposed to the idea of her son going to school so far away, but like any good mother, she still helped Will through the application process, proofing everything along the way.

“At first, my mom thought I was joking,” said Will, “but as it got closer, I kept saying, ‘Mom I’m really gonna do this, mom this is really gonna happen.’ So she finally reluctantly said, ‘OK. Well, let’s do this then.’

“In the end,” Will added, “I couldn’t have asked for more support from my family. I really owe everything to them.”

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.