Gaels hitter back in service

Tomlinson feeling no ill effects after injury

Mike Tomlinson (#12) is second in the OUA in points per game, after returning from injury.
Mike Tomlinson (#12) is second in the OUA in points per game, after returning from injury.

Tomorrow, one of the OUA’s biggest offensive threats will be back in full force.

Third-year outside hitter Mike Tomlinson will be wearing #12 and stationed in the front row during the men’s volleyball game at the ARC — leaping, lunging, challenging and never hesitating. He completely tore his ACL less than a year ago, but there won’t be any evidence of it this weekend.

Since returning to the court in late November, Tomlinson has rocketed to second in the OUA in points per game. That’s up from fifth overall in 2012-13, his breakout university season.

“I would say I’m back to where I was at the end of last season,” Tomlinson said.

Last year, the team’s season ended in the OUA quarterfinals, where they went back and forth with the York Lions before losing in five sets. York was ranked one spot behind the Gaels, but pulled off the upset in Kingston.

Tomlinson had 16 kills that game — more than anyone else on the Gaels. He also had 10 attacking errors and six serving errors, both team-high stats as well.

A few weeks out from that defeat, Tomlinson tore his ACL while playing basketball at the ARC. Projected recovery time for an injury of that sort is anywhere between nine and 12 months, and sometimes longer.

It would mean no summer volleyball with Team Ontario, and a drastic reduction in the off-season weight gains he’d need to reach for a spot on this year’s OUA All-Star Team.

Now, he had a new goal: to get back on the court by Christmas.

For seven months, Tomlinson worked to get healthy. There was “pre-hab” before his knee surgery — getting strong before the operation to improve recovery time. There was physiotherapy, strength and conditioning and, eventually, a return to practice six months in.

Gaels head coach Brenda Willis initially limited him to the back row instead of his usual outside front position. Tomlinson worked heavily on serving and digs, a neglected area of his game.

It wasn’t long before he was able to play at the net again, but his time in the backcourt wasn’t forgotten. In 62 sets last year, Tomlinson had 65 digs and 15 service aces. In 36 sets so far this season, he has 66 digs and 15 aces.

“That side of my game has seen some much-needed improvement,” he said.

It takes a community to bring an athlete back to top form, and Tomlinson is quick to credit the people around him. Physiotherapy teams in Kingston and back in Stratford, his hometown, were involved in the recovery process.

He also spent a great deal of time working with strength and conditioning coaches at the ARC.

“I had so much support,” Tomlinson said. “That’s how I managed to come back [ahead of schedule].”

Like any injured player, he looked to use his time off the court effectively. Tomlinson continued attending practices and games throughout the fall, and spent a lot of time scouting opposing players.

“Stepping back from the game [and] not having to be ready to jump in at any moment allows you to see the game in a different light,” he said.

He picked up on key players, watching the shots they took and the decisions they made. From this standpoint, he could offer advice to teammates who may have been too focused and close to the problem to see what he saw.

But the bench was also an anxious, torturous place.

“All you want to do is get out there and help your team,” he said.

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