LANGLEY — Cole Brandsma can’t quantify how close he and his Abbotsford Christian teammates came to falling short of their dream goal, unless of course, you can put a measure on the skin of his teeth.
It came that close to unraveling.
Yet ask those who know the Knights’ talented senior outside hitter how much he thrives on the biggest kinds of challenges, and you come away realizing that he wouldn’t have picked any other way to lead his team to the B.C. Double A championship title this past Dec. 1 at the Langley Events Centre.
Put all of his skill, all of his smarts, and all of his moxy into that 6-foot-6 frame and you have the player that a number of B.C.’s next-level coaches unanimously agreed was Varsity Letters’ 2018-19 B.C. boys Grade 12 Volleyball Player of the Year.
“He jumps high and he hits hard,” says Michael Hawkins, head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds and the program fortunate enough to have secured Brandsma’s services for the next five seasons. “But he also understands how to score in different ways, and that is a big thing. He is not just physically gifted, he is really developing the technical and analytical parts of his game.”
Yet the gritty part is so fun to talk about.
And the best past example of that grit, of that level of intestinal fortitude which ultimately helped lead his team on an 11th-hour run to the B.C. title?
How about the summer between his Grade 10 and 11 years, when as a member of the Canadian Under-16 team, Brandsma got a chance to show just what his brand of volleyball was all about, playing against a field filled with more seasoned competition, including a U.S. Under-18 team whose veterans had just completed their first collegiate seasons stateside.
“I think I was able to bring some stuff I was able to learn there, to our (high school) team this season,” begins Brandsma, who re-joined the same Canadian youth team this past summer for even more experience.
Hawkins, who coached Brandsma both summers on that Canadian youth national team, saw firsthand just how engrossed the young hitter became in his new surroundings and how much he grew within that blue-chip environment.
“We came to that first tournament a little wide-eyed,” Hawkins says of the summer of 2017. “We wondered how we would stack up and after the first two matches we hadn’t played too well. But by the end we had a .500 record, and then we beat U.S. Under-16 team in five sets and Cole had a big role on that team. Then this past summer (in Tulsa), we finished fourth at the same event, and Cole was out starting opposite. He was second on the team in kills and Top 10 at the tournament.”
That’s the kind of talent which returned to Abbotsford Christian in the fall to play for head coach Anthony Jansen.
“But then about three weeks before provincials we hit rock bottom,” Brandsma explains of straight-set losses in the Fraser Valley championship semifinals to MEI, and in the third-place final to Surrey Christian.
Yet while they had still qualified for provincials, their momentum had been dulled to the point that they had been exiled in the tier’s secondary pool.
In layman’s terms, they had to win their pool, then win a crossover game just to put themselves back on the runway.
They did just that, and then came the quarterfinals against its city-mates, the MEI Eagles.
“That was the match that turned it around for us,” said Brandsma who helped will the Knights to the victory, despite trailing 12-10 in the fifth set. Abby Christian later got past George Elliot to win the B.C. title.
And it was that same trait of gritty pluck he revealed with the youth national team which he carried over into provincials with his high school team.
“We had the skill, that was always there,” Brandsma said of the Knights. “We just needed to learn how to get along and fight through games. One of the things that we focused on late in the season was having the grit to push us through adversity, and ultimately it’s what helped us the most.”
Of course none of this is a surprise to Hawkins.
“I think for myself personally, having coached him the last two summers with the youth team, it’s the fact that regardless of what level he is playing at, he is a special athlete,” said Hawkins, reiterating Brandsma’s physical and cognitive abilities on the court.
“But when you have that opportunity to spend time with athletes and to get to know them as people, you get added insights into how they will fit into a program,” the coach added. “He is such a high-character individual who is focused on developing his leadership.”
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