BURNABY — Betsie de Beer doesn’t try to hide the fact that she is playing her final season of collegiate volleyball with a heavy heart.
At the same time, however, Simon Fraser’s talented 6-foot-1 outside hitter and health sciences major can’t exactly offer a scientific explanation as to why of late, that heart of hers has been prone to moments of figurative weightlessness.
All she can say is that she was fortunate to have had a coach and mentor as rare and special as the late Mike MacNeil.
On Aug. 9, MacNeil, who was so many things to so many co-workers and students at West Vancouver Secondary School, lost a six-month battle with cancer, succumbing to the illness at the age of 47.
A math and science teacher, later a counsellor, and all along, a tireless advocate in his support of not only the arts at WVSS, but of all the Highlanders sports teams, MacNeil both sponsored and coached teams at the school the past 16 years. At last count, he was involved with 21 teams and somewhere around 350 student-athletes.
Yet it was the at the helm of the senior girls volleyball team where his most natural talents merged and ultimately shone.
It was there that he coached, inspired and ultimately embedded life lessons in groups of young women headed for the next chapter of their lives.
And it was there, de Beer says, that she met a teacher-coach who gave all of his players the kinds of intangible gifts they continue to unwrap to this day.
“I have always been a stressed-out player, really nervous and having a hard time calming myself to play my best,” revealed de Beer on Wednesday as she and her teammates prepared to open the 2019 Great Northwest Athletic Conference season on Thursday night (7 p.m.) at home to the Central Washington Wildcats.
“But this year I have felt a greater calm coming over me before games because I think of him at every moment,” added de Beer, a 2016 West Van Secondary grad. “I know it sounds cheesy, but all of this relaxes me. I think it’s because I realize that he represents a greater perspective on life. On what is important. So now, instead of just focusing on me playing well, I try to support my teammates more. I try to give back to them a little more of how special he always made me feel. I guess you could say that it’s uplifting.”
Heavy hearts, it seems, are not all bound by the laws of gravity.
A TEACHER WHO NEVER STOPPED TEACHING
When the 2018-19 school year ended last June, Mike MacNeil did not make contingencies regarding his return in the fall.
Such was the faith he had.
“He did not take leave for September,” WVSS co-athletic director Jo-Anne McKee said Wednesday. “He was planning on coming back, and he 100 per cent planned on coaching (the senior girls volleyball) team in September.
“He did get a diagnosis, and I think he knew his time was finite,” continued McKee. “But it was still super sudden.”
de Beer concurs, noting that MacNeil’s passing in August took her by surprise because of the stoicism he showed over the final days of his life.
“I talked to him during a time that I think he was going through chemo,” begins de Beer. “I offered to come up and see him, but he never took me up on it. I knew he had his own reasons.
“But I never felt that he wasn’t going to make it because he never told me that he was really struggling,” she added. “He would tell me ‘I had a tough week, but I am looking at the positive stuff.’
“At the time, he must have known things weren’t going good, but he never once eluded that to me, and I feel it was because he didn’t want to burden people. Never once did he sound sad for himself. That’s why I was shocked when he passed.”
In retrospect, it was a consistency he carried through his life, a level selflessness in the face of his own mortality. Right to the end, he was teaching lessons.
APPRECIATING A MOST SPECIAL GIFT
Ask anyone who has seen Betsie de Beer on the volleyball court through the Clan’s eight-match (4-4) preseason, which included tests against some of the best D2 programs in the NCAA, and the consensus is that she is playing the best volleyball of her entire career.
Both she and fellow senior outside hitter Kirsten Pinkney come into Thursday’s match against Central Washington as the team’s co-leaders at 3.14 points-per-set. Pinkney has a team-leading 88 kills over eight matches while de Beer is second at 80 kills. Senior Tamara Clarke is third with 57 kills. Last month, de Beer and teammate Julia Tays (setter) were named to the GNAC’s preseason all-conference team.
“I think she underestimates how good she is sometimes,” SFU head coach Gina Schmidt says of de Beer, one of six seniors on an experienced Clan team. “In terms of complete players, she is everything a coach is looking for in terms of a teammate and a student and she is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. On top of that she can do it all. She can hit, pass, block and dig and she comes with all the physical tools including that huge wingspan.”
Yet de Beer readily admits she was so hard on herself, and “so angry” about any mistakes she might make “that it would ruin the game for me.”
And so in retrospect, through both her mourning and her homage, she has found the calm she needs to see life in a much broader and meaningful way entering her senior season. That she says, is a gift from MacNeil.
“If he wasn’t in the gym watching my games (at SFU), then he was following on-line, and he would tweet about how we were doing, and how I was playing and he’d write #gobetsie,” says de Beer, who in conjunction with her teammates is in the initial planning stages of what will be a Pink Night cancer awareness fund-raiser in honour of MacNeil, in conjunction with a Clan volleyball match in late October. “He was still so connected to my volleyball career, and in that way, we were really never out of touch.”
High school coaches have the ability to impact for a lifetime, and just in case we sometimes forget or take them for granted, Betsie de Beer reminds us all how special they really are.
“This isn’t about me,” she concludes, “but I remember that he nominated me for an award on the North Shore when I was in Grade 12, which I had no idea existed.
“I was coaching some other teams and it was for leadership and inspiration in the community. I won. And when I went to the awards ceremony, it was on a Thursday or a Friday night, he came to there on his own free time to support me. I just feel endlessly grateful for having known him. Moments like that are so touching. What teacher does that…really?”
A special one.
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