Chat boards were abuzz with rumors and gossip when someone spotted Ben Patch at a BYU men’s volleyball game early this year. The 6-foot-8 freshman phenom that helped propel the Cougars to a national championship match appearance in 2013 had been missing from Smith Fieldhouse for over a year, having departed for his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission after that season and a summer spent training with the U.S. Junior National Team.

But alas, Patch wasnt in town to rejoin the BYU team. Instead, Provo was just a stop on his way to Anaheim, where he’s spent the last few months training with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Patch’s mission was originally planned to last for two years. But after a year and a half in Columbus and Xenia, Ohio, the Provo native decided it was time to head back out west.

I wanted to work on some other things personally and I felt being home was the best place to do those things, and not on the mission, he said.

In Anaheim, Patch and the few other national team members not currently playing for a college team or professionally overseas, train for an hour or two each morning and then spend another hour, hour and a half, in the weight room.

While on his mission, Patch only touched a ball once, at a sand court in Columbus with a few members of the Ohio State men’s volleyball team. I was horrible, he said. And occasionally, if he was feeling it, hed go for a run in the mornings. But most of the time, he said, he wasnt feeling it.

I came home very, very, very out of shape, he said.

It’s been rough, said Patch of his return to a regular training schedule. [But] playing feels good, and there are moments when Im like, ok, I can play volleyball. And then there are moments when Im like, I am just atrocious.

Though he did try to rejoin the BYU team when he returned from Ohio, a missed enrollment deadline foiled his plans. But Patch has decided he isnt disappointed to be away from Provo this spring.

I think being [in Anaheim] is a good opportunity to slowly get back into it and start competing at a higher level, he said.

Even after two seasons away from the BYU team, Patch’s NCAA eligibility wont be affected, as official religious missions qualify as an exemption from the NCAA’s Five-Year Rule that says a player has five years to complete four seasons of participation in any one sport. Military or recognized foreign aid service can also serve as an exception to the Five-Year Rule. When Patch returns to campus in the fall, hell be a true sophomore and have three more seasons to play for the Cougars.

Patch left for his mission in 2013 after an extraordinary freshman season. His 418 kills were outpaced on the team that advanced all the way to the national championship match only by Taylor Sander, who is now a key member of the U.S. Men’s National Team and is currently playing professionally in Italy. The school record Patch set for kills in a match on March 1, 2013, when he put away 35 swings against UC Irvine, still stands.

Yet even an All-American season, the AVCA and Volleyball magazine Freshman of the Year honors, and the chance to contend for the 2014 national championship with Sander, then a senior, couldnt keep Patch in Provo.

It was hard, said Patch of his decision. Volleyball is a huge part of my life, but it’s not all of who I am. I thought that I had gotten far enough in volleyball at that point in time that I could take a break and figure out who I wanted to become as a person and not so much as an athlete.

Patch appreciated the break from volleyball, but the move to Ohio didnt keep the towering athlete from being recognized on the street.

Almost every Mormon in Ohio knows BYU sports, Patch explained, so everywhere I went, I couldnt get away from, Youre Ben Patch the volleyball player.

Even non-Mormons occasionally stopped him as he went about his volunteer and missionary tasks, acknowledging his volleyball prowess and asking for a photo.

For his year and a half in Ohio, Patch did the missionary thing, walking around and talking to people about the LDS church, in addition to doing other volunteer work at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and jails, even sometimes helping out with people’s yards and housework.

My purpose [on the mission] was to try to instill hope and happiness and to see people grasp onto that really changed my life, he said.

Now that he’s out of his shirtsleeves and tie and in the gym again, Patch has returned his focus to volleyball, getting back into the swing of things with every practice and each workout. With the Olympics only 17 months away, it’s an electric time to be in the USA gym, but Patch isnt sure yet where he fits into the Rio 2016 conversation.

This summer, hopefully, can give me, the team, and the coaches a gauge of if that is a serious option for me next year, he said. The Olympics in general are definitely something I want to aim for and project in my sights. If I can make it next summer, I would love to. My plan is to work really, really hard so that is an option. I think time and more reps will tell.

Last summer, with veteran outside hitter Reid Priddy out due to injury, Sander, Murphy Troy, Garrett Muagututia, Sean Rooney, Tony Ciarelli, Paul Lotman, Jeff Menzel, and even current Penn State senior Aaron Russell all spent time on the outside for Team USA, while Matt Anderson, one of the best pin hitters in the world, played the majority of the season on the right side. One has to wonder if national team head coach John Speraw sees a chance to get Anderson back on the outside if he can whip Patch into international competition form in time for Rio.

But then again, Patch is still relatively green as far as volleyball athletes go. Provo High School, from which he matriculated, didnt offer boys volleyball (it’s not a sanctioned sport for high schools in Utah), and he’s only a played a year of college ballthough it was certainly one of the most impressive freshman seasons to be played in recent memory.

For the time being, Patch is continuing to readjust to life outside of the mission, enjoying his relatively light training schedule and weekends off. The rest of the national team will be returning soon, and international competition for Team USA kicks off with the NORCECA Champions Cup in Detroit, May 21-24. Perhaps then well see how Patch stacks up.

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