LANGLEY — He has authored a resume whose international accomplishments, when placed against the world of Canadian university men’s volleyball, are groundbreaking.
He has grown to become potentially the best player to ever grace the Trinity Western program, which for the last decade has been the nation’s gold standard with four national titles in the last eight seasons.
Oh, and did we mention that Eric Loeppky is only five months removed from being a teenager?
On Friday, the dynamic 6-foot-5 third-year outside hitter takes to the Langley Events Centre court as his U Sports’ No. 2-nationally ranked Spartans (9-3) open a two-match weekend series against Kamloops’ Thompson Rivers WolfPack (7-5).
And when Loeppky does, which of his blue-chip Canada West conference numbers will percolate loudest?
First in service aces per set (0.65)? Second in both hitting percentage (.371) and service aces (26)? Third in both points-per-set (4.9) and kills-per-set (3.9)?
On a Trinity Western team filled with talent, so much of that speaks for itself.
Yet for a small town Manitoba kid who did the unthinkable and actually made Canada’s senior national ‘A’ team this past summer, accompanying them to Europe for training sessions just after his 20th birthday and just ahead of the FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championships, there is one accomplishment that outstrips any of the actual numbers.
“Our coaching staff always remarks that Eric might be the most gifted player to come through our program, with all of the international-level tools he has,” begins TWU’s longtime head coach Ben Josephson. “But to me, the contrast between his ability and his humility might be the greatest, and the most rare thing about him. He’s a small town kid whose parents must have taught him, at a really young age, that in the end, all of this is only sports.”
HIS TIME WITH THE BIG BOYS
After leading his hometown Steinbach (Man.) Regional Secondary Sabres to the Manitoba Quad-A title after his Grade 11 season, Eric Loeppky began what would become a very fruitful relationship with Canada Volleyball, at first with the junior national team and later, its senior national ‘B’ team.
Yet making Canada’s very top-tiered team while not even halfway through U Sports’ five-year eligibility window is beyond rare.
“We’ve had guys on the extended roster (while still in university), but nothing like this,” says Josephson, “nothing like being 30 minutes away from going to the World Championships.”
Canadian veteran standout Stephen Marr had spent much of the summer battling a knee issue, and with his availability to join Canada at the FIVB Worlds, which ran Sept. 9-30 in Italy and Bulgaria, an 11th-hour decision, Loeppky had remained with the team, training and playing with the squad in both Slovenia and Poland.
In the end, Marr was able to represent his country, but it was still a win-win finish to the international season for Loeppky.
“It impacted me a lot,” he said of the time he got. “Once I found out who I was playing with, I told myself that I was not going to let it overwhelm me. So instead, I thought of myself as a little puppy, ready to learn from the older players and all of their experience. I was going to be there to push them and work my hardest. If I had thought that I had to perform at a certain level, that would have been harder.”
THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
To offer a glimpse into just how tough a nut Loeppky had cracked to get as far as he did over the summer, when he arrived in Europe to join the national ‘A’ team, he was surrounded by four former Trinity Western Spartans, all of whom, after finishing their university careers, had made the jump to play for this country’s top team.
Making Canada’s 14-man squad were Ryan Sclater (2017 grad), Lucas Van Berkel (2014), Dan Jansen Van Doorn (2013) and Steven Marshall (2013).
For Loeppky, his early success has tested his maturity and forced himself to examine what really matters most in life.
“It’s really complicated,” begins Loeppky, who has already felt the lure of a professional career overseas, while dealing with life as a student-athlete at a perennial national title contender, and staying ready to excel when called upon by the national program.
“It’s almost like there are two volleyball worlds in Canada,” he explains. “There is university, and then there is the national team. And when you are at nationals, you have this huge pull to play professionally because most of the guys you play with are professionals and you are starting to get those opportunities. So you are constantly in an environment that makes you want to do that.”
The other side?
“You can only play as long as body allows you to, so you have to think about it,” he says of turning pro. “But I am also having the most fun years of my life (at Trinity Western). We are a super-close team, I am getting an education, and I know that you won’t be able to play volleyball forever. So it’s a big pull both ways.”
For his part, Loeppky is hopeful of being able to complete, at the very least, his undergrad work at Trinity, before he would make any kind of decision.
Josephson feels Loeppky is navigating his best path at present.
“Right now he is travelling a road and accomplishing both goals,” the coach says. “At some point they will diverge and he will have to make a decision, but we keep saying that it’s not yet. If his goal is to go pro, he is ready, but there is more to life than volleyball, and that is what makes Eric so special. So many would just jump at the money, but he has great perspective.”
Ask Loeppky about the longterm plan, and he’s pretty sure, that just like his grandfather and his dad, Greg, that he will be a teacher. And of course, he’d like to coach.
In the present, however, the Spartans are coming off a bye week, and Loeppky wants to help them get back on the winning track Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (7 p.m.) after getting swept in their 2019 debut at No. 1 Brandon (14-2)
The matches against Thompson Rivers are the first of five straight two-match weekends, with UBC, Mt. Royal, MacEwan and Manitoba to follow before the start of conference playoffs.
It’s going to take a team effort to maximize both their finish and their momentum, and Josephson appreciates the subtle ways in which Loeppky is providing his leadership to that cause.
“Pure leadership is one of the hardest things in sport and it’s very difficult to lead and to influence your friends, especially when they are all around the same age,” begins Josephson.
“Eric is the only athlete on this team who has played against the best in world, so he has that knowledge, but he doesn’t want to come across as know-it-all national team guy, so he is finding a nice balance between sharing information and encouraging.”
It’s like the coach says, the contrast between his ability and his humility is enormous.
“He is as good a human being you will find, but he’s also the best player in the country,” Josephson says with pride, “and I don’t think many would argue.”
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