LANGLEY — Aaron Boettcher’s greatest skill had always been his ability to rise above the crowd and block out any obstacles that came his way.
As an ultra-athletic 6-foot-8 middle blocker for the Trinity Western Spartans volleyball team, that is precisely what the nation saw two years ago this coming weekend when the Surrey native led his team past the Alberta Golden Bears by registering a jaw-dropping 14 blocks in the U Sports national final at Edmonton.
Yet along the road of what would become a 24-month journey back to nationals and the hunt to re-claim the Tantramar Trophy, emblematic of Canadian university men’s volleyball supremacy, a warrior learned he could survive and ultimately thrive without his coat of armour.
In the off-season following that national title, Trinity Western’s second straight and fifth all-time, Boettcher suffered what would later be diagnosed as a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Surgery meant missing the entire 2017-18 U Sports season, but more than that, it stripped the former Elgin Park Secondary grad of his identity, forcing him, through a will-testing process of self-discovery, to re-prioritize the steps he wanted his life to take.
To Boettcher, all of that added up to making this volleyball season his last, despite the fact he still has one more season of eligibility remaining.
“I am pumped,” the 23-year-old begins, speaking Wednesday from the tournament’s championship site at Quebec City’s Laval University, where the Spartans open play Friday (3 p.m.) against Hamilton’s McMaster Marauders. (full opening-round schedule below).
“It’s been a long comeback from the injury,” he continues, referencing the fact that he was forced to watch last season’s national title-match loss to the UBC Thunderbirds from the sidelines, knowing he could have helped the cause. “But honestly, it’s just a blessing to play again. Coming back from shoulder injuries are hard. We use them so much. But the way I am looking at it is that not everybody gets to make it to the nationals for five (straight) years of their career.”
BIG AND SMALL… AT THE SAME TIME
It was back in the 2013-14 B.C. high school volleyball season, Boettcher’s senior season at Elgin Park, that TWU head coach Ben Josephson addressed the blank canvas potential of his new star recruit.
“Finding a kid that big who looks that small when he plays is rare,” Josephson said of Boettcher’s ability to transfer the expert coordination and the dynamic bursts of a much more compact physique into a game-changing 6-foot-8 frame. “He can program his computer really fast.”
It seemed especially intriguing because Boettcher had sprouted a total of eight inches between his ninth and 10th grade years.
And when you added a competitive nature which was beast-like in its intensity, you had a U Sports’ rookie who was landing in an environment where he was sure to thrive, especially being surrounded by some of the best players in TWU program history: Brad Kufske, Nick Del Bianco, Ryan Sclater.
And so re-visiting with Josephson on the very topic of his initial projections versus what he has ultimately come to be?
“He’s that same player,” the coach begins. “You almost forget he’s 6-8 because he moves like such a small athlete. He’s light and nimble, but now way stronger, way more explosive and a better attacker.”
Then, Josephson steps out of the box a bit and places Boettcher among some pretty exclusive company.
“He has revolutionized the entire middle blocker position at Trinity Western, and maybe for all of the Canada West,” Josephson continues. “He has developed techniques on his own as part of being a problem-solving athlete, to the point where he is the best read-blocker I have seen play. It’s the combination of his length and speed, and then his read.
“He’s that big guy who moves like a small guy that creates the perfect middle blocker. What we’ve tried to do is study what makes him special, and how we can train the next generation of Spartans’ middles. We’ve put a lot of middles on the national team, but at this (U Sports) level, he is a better blocker than all of them.”
THE MIND GAME
Spend any amount of time talking with Aaron Boettcher about his shoulder injury, and it becomes very clear that the most painful part of all was not in the physical realm.
Instead it was felt in deepest recesses of his mind, and thus the questions it ultimately made him ask of himself.
Upon reflection, it’s evident that he didn’t like who it was making him become.
“It was a complete 180 in terms of the type of life I was living, in terms of being away from the court,” he begins. “There was a lot of being sad for not playing, but then it almost turned into a resentment for the guys on the team getting better. I would get self-conscious. Maybe I wouldn’t play? And then it was a level of patience to come back that was so hard.”
Just being around the teammates he loved, in team settings, was for him extremely tough.
“I found myself removing myself from the team, because at practice it got to a level of feeling depressed,” he said. “It’s something I do every day. You have a passion, a love for sport, and then it gets taken away.”
It’s level of transparency few could share without facing the crucible of despair.
Josephson has offered his support throughout, knowing that elite athletes have a double-edged sword forged into their competitive DNA.
“You don’t know how hard they take it mentally,” the coach begins, “or how long it might take for the confidence to come back. It’s a reality for elite performers that their identity is tied to the way they play. They can go through a lot of different mental challenges.
“(Boettcher) battled through some serious stuff there,” Josephson continued, “but it’s made him more balanced. He’s found his rhythm again. He’s spiking better, blocking better. But he’s also got more emotional balance. He’s a better man and a really great leader.”
AT PEACE WITH THE GAME
The Spartans have not only gone to the national tournament for all five of Boettcher’s years with the team, they’ve gone all the way to national final over the first four as well.
In 2015, he was a rookie on a team which lost to Alberta in the final. The next two years he played a big role in helping TWU to back-to-back Tantramar Trophy titles. And last season, as he watched from the sidelines, Trinity Western again got to the final, only to lose to crosstown rival UBC in the title match.
The last time he stood on the court as an active player at the nationals?
It was in that 2017 national title win over Alberta, on the Golden Bears’ home court in Edmonton, and those 14 blocks still reverberate in terms of all-time performances in program history.
It’s a total which is tied for the third-highest single-match mark in TWU history and also equals what would be the third-highest total registered in Canada West regular-season play.
Yet what sets Boettcher’s 14 blocks apart from the rest is that they came in a national final against an Alberta program which has traditionally been one of the best attacking programs in the country.
Trinity Western had 16 blocks as a team in that title match, and Boettcher was involved in 14 of them. And of the Golden Bears’ 23 attacking errors, Boettcher caused 14 of them.
“We call him ‘Big Game Betch’ because he loves that big stage,” Josephson explains. “In our two consecutive championship finals wins, he had 25 combined blocks. He loves the moment, and we like to call this time of the year Betcher Season.”
Now he is getting a chance to try to help his team back to that very stage, yet it’s an older, wiser Boettcher who has come to his final dance.
“I try not to think about it,” he explains of the steps required to arrive at what might be best called his in-match Zen-like state of mind. “I play my best when I am able to walk the fine line between being intense and loose.”
Yet most of all, he is at peace with the fact that he’s ready to leave the game, whatever happens, after this Sunday.
“There’s a new spark in me because it’s my last year,” Boettcher says. “I think my mental game is stronger. Little adversities off the court don’t rattle me the same way. And in terms of the physicality, sometimes I still get a little pain in my shoulder. But I know everything is in tact so I just keep swinging away. Last year opened my eyes that there is more to life than volleyball. As competitive as I am, that injury has changed me for the rest of my life.”
Never question for a second that Aaron Boettcher has lost his competitive zeal, or the pride he takes in battling with his volleyball brothers.
Yet know that our lives in sport are never just about the notches placed in the win-loss column.
More substantially, they test our mettle and help reveal our truest identities for the long journey which inevitably follows.
U SPORTS NATIONALS
(all games at Laval University)
FRIDAY (all times PDT)
10 a.m. — No. 1 Brandon vs. No. 8 Montreal
12 p.m. — Mount Royal vs. No. 5 Alberta
3 p.m. — No. 2 Trinity Western vs. No. 7 McMaster
5 p.m. — No. 3 Laval vs. No. 6 Queen’s
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