Ken Shibuya remembers exactly the moment when the raw talent of BYU freshman volleyball player Ben Patch morphed into something special.
A member of the USA Boys’ Youth National Volleyball Team in 2011, Patch had drawn attention for his dynamic jumping ability and strong arm. But during an early practice in May, a high ball was hit to his side of the net. The ball was not close to the net, so the front-row players just let it go and began to transition.
Then came Patch, stationed in the back row.
“Ben … suddenly came out of nowhere,” said Shibuya, the national youth team’s coach. “He sprang forward with that huge jump and just crushed the ball back from where it came. Everyone looked in awe as if to say, ‘Did that really just happen?’ Of course, Ben saw the looks on their faces and the astonished giggles and sheepishly asked, ‘Was I not supposed to do that?’ We assured him that was definitely OK.”
So Shibuya, also an assistant coach at Stanford, is not at all surprised at what Patch is doing in his first season with the No. 1-ranked Cougars.
There are stories of athletes who have overcome certain shortcomings and roadblocks to find success. This is not one of them.
Armed with physical gifts and a focus that belies his breezy, affable personality — and a love of making ceramics — success has often found Patch, who declares his continued surprise at how far he has come.
“I wake up thinking, ‘I started playing with girls and now I’m starting for the No. 1 team,” Patch said. “It’s so girlie, but I want to cry. I’m so privileged to lead this life.”
On a team with several stars, the 6-foot-8 Patch, seemingly all legs and arms — “my torso has yet to grow,” he says — has become an impact player for Cougars and their quest for a fourth national championship.
Patch, whose 35 kills keyed a road victory at then No. 1 UC Irvine, is the only player to claim back-to-back American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Player of the Week awards.
As a part of the U.S. Junior National Team in 2012, the Provo High grad was named Most Valuable Player of the NORCECA Championship, a biannual volleyball tournament played by eight countries. And it’s a good chance that Patch, who wants to be part of the U.S. Olympic team, will be named an All-American this year.
Yet, there remains some work. Right now, Patch continues to rely mostly on his physical gifts.
“The Olympics are absolutely in range, but Ben needs to become a more physical player, stronger and savvier,” BYU coach Chris McGown said. “Once he kind of figures it out, he can become great with serious dedication and work.
“The sky’s the limit.”
Linda Patch has little doubt about what her son can accomplish. Patch is one of two adopted sons of Linda, a nurse, and Mike Patch, a professor at Utah Valley University, who also have two older biological children. Ben was two days old when his new parents brought him home, after being treated for a touch of jaundice.
Patch, 18, knows his birth parents were high-level athletes — his father was a football player — which is where the athletic gifts and drive originated.
“I recognized that when he was 6 weeks old,” Linda said. “He’s an intense person. One of his talents is absolute focus. When he gets his mind set on something, it’s the bike, bike, bike syndrome — he’d hound us to get what he wanted.”
Certainly, Kevin Willett understands Patch’s determination not to take no for an answer. Because Provo didn’t have a volleyball program for boys, Patch started pestering Willet, who conducts volleyball programs for grade schoolers through high school in Pleasant Grove.
Patch called Willett every week, something Linda Patch didn’t know about until later.
“Literally every week I’d get this e-mail from some kid in Provo,” said Willett, who finally relented. “If he wants to play that bad, I’ll take him.”
What Willet got was a short, skinny kid with no skills but an absolute love of volleyball. Patch was a sponge.
“He took everything I told him and applied it,” Willett said. “When he was in ninth grade, I knew he was going to be a good player. It’s fun to see the level he’s playing at.”
It was about the ninth grade that Patch experienced the growth spurt that would ultimately change his life.
“That’s an understatement,” Linda said with a laugh. “It was challenging, but he found a way to get a job and make money and pretty much keep himself in clothes.”
At the same time, Patch began attending BYU men’s volleyball games, not that he was a big Cougar fan. In fact, just the opposite. Yet, there was much joy watching the men compete.
“I’d sit over there,” said Patch, pointing to a corner of the Smith Fieldhouse. “And, ‘Holy cow, these guys are freaking insane.’ I used to marvel at how tall they were. I was below their shoulders. Now [and he laughs] I’m taller than all of them.
“I didn’t know if I could ever play college volleyball. I wasn’t sure I was that good. I was short, then all of a sudden, tall, tall, tall, tall.”
That notion of selling himself short followed him through high school. Patch traveled to Anaheim, Calif., with a friend to try out for the youth national team. He was certain there was no way he was going to be picked — only to find himself was bound for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Are you kidding?” Patch remembered thinking. “Things just keep happening. There’s got to be something in this.”
Certainly, Cougar volleyball fans revel in Patch’s high-flying assault. So does Patch.
“I freaking love it,” he said. “Why can’t you dance around when playing for a Division I men’s volleyball team, let alone the No. 1 team in the country. If you’re not having fun, why are you playing?”
Ben Patch file
• 6-foot-8 freshman from Provo
• Is the only player to win the AVCA Player of the Week award two consecutive weeks
• As a member of the U.S. Junior National Team, Patch was named MVP of the NORCECA Championship, a tournament featuring eight countries
• Named in Volleyball Magazine as one of the top 10 recruits for his class
O BYU vs. Pepperdine Thursday, 7 p.m.
BYU vs. USC Saturday, 8 p.m.