Words by Aaron Boettcher
For the fifth-year Ashtyn McKenzie the journey to playing for the Trinity Western University’s womens volleyball team wasn’t an easy route. Her long-time dream often seemed out of reach, but that did not stop her.
From the ages of seven to 15, McKenzie lived in Asia, with Malaysia becoming her home for seven years, as her parents were church planters before going into leadership and missions work. Then, in her family’s final year abroad, McKenzie lived in Hong Kong.
Far from a traditional path to U SPORTS success, it wasn’t until moving back to Canada, from Asia to Chestermere, Alta., that she launched her volleyball career in her Grade 10 year.
It started somewhat unceremoniously.
Tryouts were on the first day of school. Not even knowing she wanted to try out before going to school that day, her mom had to bring her some clothes late in the afternoon.
“My mom brought my basketball clothes,” McKenzie says. “So that was terribly embarrassing because the other girls were wearing spandex shorts.”
Her apparel didn’t seem to matter. She made the team, but admittedly not because of her talent.
“I got on the team pretty much because I was tall and athletic,” she says. “I didn’t contribute much other than that, so they put me in the middle.”
From there, McKenzie started a club volleyball journey that seemed to align rather well with her very much non-linear path to TWU. She played club volleyball in Calgary during her Grade 10 year, after which, she moved to Vernon, B.C., where she tried out for a club that was 45 minutes away in Kelowna, B.C. She then decided to play basketball in her Grade 11 year instead of club volleyball. The following year, she returned to the volleyball court, taking a spot on the Kelowna-based club.
“At that point, I had found out about Trinity Western and it was the long shot dream,” she says. “(But) realistically, I didn’t even think I could play post-secondary.”
In her Grade 12 year at Vernon Secondary School, McKenzie was offered a position at Ambrose University back in Calgary. She went in with the hopes that she would eventually transfer to a U SPORTS-playing school. In her first year she started as a middle, but she sprained her ankle in the first game of the season, costing her to sit out much of year. However, that year proved to be hugely impactful for McKenzie.
“That was actually a really cool time where I learned a lot about God and leadership and motivation.”
In McKenzie’s second year at Ambrose, she switched from the middle to the right side. Her and her Ambrose coaches then started contacting TWU women’s coach Ryan Hofer about McKenzie coming to TWU.
“I really wanted Trinity (Western). It was just the dream.”
Hofer happened to be in town when McKenzie was playing a match for Ambrose. However, for McKenzie, she didn’t have her best performance.
“I played horribly and missed every serve”
Hofer recalls watching her play. He saw some potential, but he wasn’t blown away.
“I remember thinking it was a bit of a stretch for what we needed at that time,” Hofer says.
But that wasn’t the end of McKenzie’s pursuit to play for the Spartans. She and the coaching staff at Ambrose kept pushing for her to go to TWU. They contacted Hofer and offered for her to attend TWU as a redshirt and, as such, not play at all or an entire season. McKenzie wanted it so bad that she was prepared to give up playing in games to attend. This is where her TWU experience began.
“At that time, we had a little bit of room on our roster…so we said yes,” Hofer says.
But, during that first year at TWU, in 2016-17, a spot on the floor opened up for McKenzie. However, the position was in the middle, and she was coming in as a right side. Friend and teammate Michaella Crema clearly recalls the first time McKenzie stepped back into the middle position.
“I remember the first day Hofer saying, ‘Ashtyn go middle on this side,’ and she looked at me with a look that said, ‘I don’t remember how to play middle,’” Crema says.
Despite being thrown back into the middle, McKenzie had no problem with it and took the challenge right away. She had made it to her dream school and wanted to do whatever she could to help the team win.
“It felt like I had to relearn middle all over again,” McKenzie says.
McKenzie played her first year at TWU in the middle and Hofer recalls a conversation with McKenzie that embodies her attitude towards the team.
“She said, ‘Coach I just want to help us win a championship.’ She has that dedication to whatever the team needs."
The following season, 2017-1,8 McKenzie moved back to the right side. She wanted to do whatever would help the team.
“My mindset behind it was I love playing and I love supporting the team in whatever capacity they need me,” she says. “I love learning and so having steep growth curves is really fun.”
Crema echoes this by recalling practices, thinking back to all the times McKenzie has had a question about the game or her position.
“She is a big question asker in practice and she’s one of the people you would expect to stay after practice to talk to the coaches or rep something out. And she doesn’t act that way because she is working for a position. She is always like that. It is who she is.”
Hofer praises McKenzie’s hard work and determination for getting her to where she is now – both physically and emotionally. She is always willing to do what it takes for the team to have success.
“She’s just got this work ethic where she wants to know what she can do to get better,” Hofer says. “She’s not afraid to work hard in the weight room and put in the time there. In rep sessions she has been committed to being at every rep session she can possibly be at.”
No matter where she is on the court, she always brings the same emotional energy that keeps the team together.
“The practices where she is not there her presence is missed,” Crema says.
Hofer suggests she also helps bring the intensity out in the players around her.
“When she is on the floor, she plays with a lot of passion (and) she plays with a lot of fire. I think that kind of thing is contagious.”
McKenzie can be considered somewhat of a glue that keeps the players together on the court. She’s always chatting with her teammates and she never gives up on a ball.
She is one of the keys to the Spartans success. It was always her dream to come play for TWU. Despite her late start in volleyball, the injuries, being initially told there wasn’t a spot on the Spartans and the position changes, she never gave up on wanting to be at TWU. She kept pushing until she got here and when she got here, she made her presence felt both on and off the court. McKenzie went from a program where she hardly won to a program that is a perfect 14-0 this season and ranked No. 1 in the country.
There was never a moment where she stopped chasing her dream school, Trinity Western. Now she is here on a mission for a national championship.