You don’t know Caitlin Le until she hits you in the face.
Le, the Brandon University science student, is calm, reserved and pragmatic. She speaks in "email," Bobcats volleyball teammate Alexa Shoults once opined.
But on game day, Le is the extreme, polar opposite. Bobcat rookies make this shocking discovery upon scoring their first big point. They expect a couple of high-fives in the huddle and out of nowhere …
"I looked at Caitlin, and ‘Smack,’" said Shoults, of her first-career Caitlin Slap after an ace. "I just caught it (on the cheek) and I’ve never been that fired up."
"It’s exhilarating," added fifth-year setter Jamie Bain.
Le was nervous when she joined the Bobcats back in 2017, admittedly intimidated by the veterans. But a burning passion and competitive fire take over an otherwise quiet individual when that first whistle blows.
The slap has been her signature celebration since her club volleyball days back home in Mississauga, Ont.
"It’s a gut instinct, it’s not something that’s out of hatred or spite, if anything it’s the opposite," she said with a laugh, thinking back to the first time she landed one on former captain Nikala Majewski.
"I didn’t care that she was a fourth-year, I didn’t care that she was older than me, I just did it because it was a really good play."
Usually, a good first impression is left without a red, hand-shaped mark on the cheek. In some situations, that’d be considered "assault," not "great play." But a slap or a firm two-hand shove — Le calls that the "tame" version — along with exuberant fist pumps and emphatic screams make the libero stand out in an otherwise subdued role on the volleyball court.
Add in some mind-blowing, spectacular digs and an Energizer Bunny-level work ethic, Le quickly became the quirky heart and soul of the BU women’s volleyball team.
"We thought it was hilarious," captain Rayvn Wiebe said of her first slap. "She just becomes this different animal during games.
"She brings so much passion and I don’t know where it comes from, because talking to her, she almost seems shy."
That’s a fair assessment from the Bobcat who has known Le the longest. Wiebe was tasked with touring Le around the Wheat City campus during her visit back in 2016.
As they walked the John R. Brodie Science Centre halls, Wiebe, just a rookie herself at the time, realized Le wasn’t your average high school athlete.
Well, she wasn’t. Le led her St. Francis Xavier Tigers to the Region of Peel Secondary Schools Athletic Association (ROPSSAA) title four straight years, being named team MVP and most dedicated player in her senior season. That followed a summer she spent with Team Ontario, capturing the 2016 National Team Challenge Cup.
Cracking the Ontario roster might just be tougher than winning that tournament as the most populous province. It takes impressing coaching staff at a week-long high-performance camp, where players do nothing but eat, sleep and train. You need to stand out to get invited in the first place, and that’s where Le’s larger-than-libero persona came in handy. Whether it’s diving for an impressive dig or unleashing a celebration, she’s easy to spot.
Le also helped Pakmen, the Mississauga-based club volleyball team — famous on the boys side at the time but insignificant on the girls — to provincial and national crowns.
Wiebe’s observations, however, had nothing to do with Le’s résumé. She asked pointed questions and recorded Wiebe’s answers. It was clear she had a checklist: small university, strong science program, open libero spot.
"We kind of ticked off all her boxes that way," Wiebe said. "You could tell she had her priorities in order … she was very prepared and she knew what she wanted.
"It was more like we were recruited by Caitlin."
Le signed on as BU head coach Lee Carter’s first recruit straight out of an Ontario high school, joining current teammates Alexa Shoults and Nicole Ashauer in the rookie class.
She made her first impression on Ashauer before they met for training camp, while the Calgary product was en route to Brandon, nervous and full of questions.
They texted as Ashauer’s parents drove, making plans to partner up for drills and workouts, to help each other find their classes and play pepper together at practice.
"We were leaning on each other as rookies, which was really cool and made me feel welcome right off the bat," Ashauer said. "She definitely whipped me into shape. It was really great to have her push me in every aspect of the game that I was struggling with."
Le came to be a full-time starter from the start and did just that.
She put up 30 digs in her first weekend of regular season play in 2017 and hit her season-high of 30 in a match towards the end of the campaign. She finished eighth in Canada West with 3.43 digs per set. After a slight dip the following year — 10th at 3.24 dps — she finished second in 2019-20 with a whopping 4.35 dps.
She set a BU record that year on a night she’d still rather forget, when she dug 39 balls in a five-set loss to Winnipeg on Nov. 7, 2019. She was astonishing during the two-and-a-half-hour battle and utterly dejected afterwards. She didn’t know or care in the slightest that she set a then Canada West record — which was interestingly broken twice on Jan. 25, 2020, when Winnipeg’s Madison Fyvie had 46 and Rachel Jorvina had 63 for MacEwan on the other side.
"We didn’t win and that sucks more," Le said. "I was pretty pissed off at the loss and understandably so, it was a five-setter at home against Winnipeg, one of our rivals."
Alberta head coach Laurie Eisler used to say BU legend Donata Huebert was the only libero in the conference she’d game plan around. To some degree, Le’s getting similar treatment these days, and takes that as a compliment. She’s currently seventh with 3.58 dps, but the Bobcats’ offence is also ending rallies faster and limiting the need for her heroics.
That being said, if the ball doesn’t come to Le, she finds it.
"There’s (a ball) you wouldn’t even expect anyone to get," said fifth-year setter Jamie Bain, "and she comes all the way across the court to get it. She’s amazing."
Growing up with a racket in hand, every ball was Le’s.
"Tennis is a religion in my family," she said.
Understatement? Maybe. Le won a bronze medal in girls doubles at high school provincials with partner Meagan Duff in 2017.
Her parents, Wayne and Oanh, get up at 6 o’clock every morning and drive an hour to Guelph to play tennis before work. If there’s a grand slam or any professional event taking place, you can bet they’re watching.
"My grandma knows (Roger) Federer’s relationship status … (Novak) Djokovic’s controversy, age and birthday," Le chuckled.
Le feels her tennis serve made her a better attacker while she played left side a few years back. But perhaps the best way tennis translates to volleyball is the instant reaction to move towards the ball, rather than a split-second pause to determine whether it’s hers or not.
"If you ever watch Federer play, it’s like he’s a ballerina on the court," Le said. "He doesn’t make a sound. He’s just dancing on the court. I like to translate it to volleyball too since it’s such a quick, reactionary sport. You got to be there at the right time and hopefully the ball’s hit at you."
"Everything’s yours," she added with a grin. "If there’s one thing you can control, you got to do it."
So if the opponent plays a free ball just about anywhere on the court, Le’s chasing it down. Not because she doesn’t trust her teammates to make a quality touch, but to free them up to attack.
Le picked volleyball over tennis because she loves having teammates to endure the lows and enjoy the highs alongside. That choice, coupled with a five-foot-seven frame, left her destined to play one of the most under-appreciated roles in sports as a libero.
The job demands patience. She only plays back row and isn’t allowed to hit or even serve. There’s no way to retaliate when an opponent hits you; neutralizing them by absorbing their attacks is the best a libero can do.
But Le sees the beauty in it: that it’s an opportunity to selflessly elevate those around her. She calls herself the quarterback. After the first touch, she’s able to survey the court and pick out weaknesses in opposing defences. She’ll point the gaps out to her teammates and watch as they suddenly get a little more effective at the net.
"You don’t get a lot of the credit and you’re not noticed first thing off the bat and that’s OK," Le said. "It’s something I’ve learned and I take pride in really. I love seeing my teammates excel and I love supporting them in whatever they do."
Of course, that earns Le the right to have a little fun with her teammates when they compete at practice.
Wiebe hits a cross-court shot at the libero; she digs it.
"Easy," Le chirps. "Again."
Le knows what’s coming next from her team’s best hitter. The same night she etched her name in BU’s history book, Wiebe broke her own single-match kills mark with 28. She’s planting the next one.
"It’s just friendly banter and I like to get under her skin sometimes," Le chuckled. "… Most of the time she scores because she’s like ‘Caitlin, you deserve this one,’ or sometimes I dig it. I think it makes both of us better at the end of the day."
Le was always aware of the enormous shoes she came to fill.
Donata Huebert roamed the Bobcats’ backcourt in four of the seven seasons leading up to Le’s arrival. The German import’s phenomenal career was split into three two-year stretches, the middle two being in the European professional ranks. She amassed more than 1,200 digs in Canada West and is the only player to be named the country’s libero of the year three times (2011, 2014 and 2015, the last year it was awarded).
Gillian Leech was no slouch filling in the next year, either, finishing fourth in the conference at 3.53 digs per set.
Le wasn’t the next Huebert, but only because she couldn’t be the "next" anything. She’s incomparable; one of one.
"Caitlin is the definition of being a Bobcat. She really is," Ashauer said. "She is tenacious, she brings the energy every single point. Without her, it really feels like there’s something missing. There’s a hole in our team that only she can fill, not only with her skill but her encouragement, support and intensity."
Wiebe noticed a trend watching broadcasts of BU’s matches. While liberos don’t often receive special attention from untrained eyes, any time the announcers have a volleyball background, they highlight Le’s play.
"She completely runs our backcourt," Wiebe said.
It’s tough to notice from the bleachers but Le consumes half the court in serve receive, leaving the other two passers mere slivers to cover. If the ball’s coming to them, they’re already in perfect position. If not, everyone knows it’s Le’s. That’ll account for the bulk of her nine receiving errors on the season, an already low total considering the volume of serves headed her way.
Le didn’t take that sort of control from the start. She felt it was the veterans’ team and while she’s started her entire BU career, she didn’t want to get in their way.
She realized over time that if the best defensive player is a ball hog, life gets easier for hitters.
It’s 6 a.m. at the Holiday Inn on the University of Saskatchewan campus, on a Saturday. A soft white light emits from a MacBook in the lobby.
It’s Le’s, of course.
"I like to think I’m a morning person, especially on road trips. I guess I can’t sleep too well in hotels," said Le, who realizes two hours before her teammates wake up for morning practice is the best time to get ahead on her studies. She has mastered the art of sneaking out of her room without a sound.
The Bobcats are coming off a three-set loss to the red-hot Huskies with another tough match 11 hours away. But school and Le’s future come first. She’s four weeks away from her medical school interview at the University of Manitoba, which coincidentally takes place a few hours before the Bobcats visit the Bisons on Feb. 12.
She’s waiting to hear back about a few more interviews, the final step in the gruelling pre-med process that demands dedication in the classroom from Day 1. Le’s work ethic in each corner of her life is undeniable.
"She just is the definition of inspiration in terms of being an athlete and being a student," Wiebe said.
"It’s honestly just who she is," added Shoults. "She’s just a hard worker all around, no matter what it is, really. It could be school, it could be even just putting in the time for friendships, volleyball or anything, she’ll give it her best."
When the volleyball teams are off for a weekend, Le won’t miss a chance to cheer on the basketball teams. But she’ll do so with her laptop in front of her.
Back in her rookie year, Le would ask an assistant coach to stay back after practice for an extra 30 minutes to pass. Brandon had a match the next day and the coach told her a couple of extra reps wouldn’t make a difference. She put the work in all week, all month, all her volleyball life. It’s time to rest up and trust that was enough.
The game’s about more than just making good touches. She needs to be a positive, supportive teammate to motivate those around her.
The same goes for her med school applications. Le poured everything she could into the medical college admission test (MCAT) and other exams. She also recognizes the importance of emotional intelligence and character in the interview process. Those aren’t developed in the library.
No matter how perfect a touch Le makes, the rest of the point is out of her control. If the ball ends up back in her court, she’ll deal with it as many times as she needs. That’s where she is with her future as she won’t hear from the U of M until May.
She has a year of eligibility left, which she could spend in Brandon or would be allowed to use with the Bisons while in med school without sitting out a year.
Le also has a long-time dream of playing professional volleyball overseas in the back of her mind. She learned through talks with coaches and former teammates that libero is the toughest position to land a deal with, due to import limits and the increased supply of good defensive players compared to tall, dynamic attackers.
"It’s the last position coaches look for," Le said. "That really discouraged me a bit, to be honest, but I reflected on myself bit and I said, ‘I’ve worked too hard and I think I have enough potential to play pro and make a difference on a team.’"
Whatever happens, she’s grateful for the myriad possibilities to choose from following what’s shaping up to be the Bobcats’ best season of her career. At this point, God only knows if it’s her last.
"I am so grateful I got to play four years with her," Wiebe said, "because I know I’ll never, ever get to play with another libero or teammate like Caitlin Le."
The Bobcats sit 4-4 ahead of tonight’s road match at Winnipeg and are all but guaranteed a playoff spot. The format, modified since teams are only playing regionally, includes 12 of Canada West’s 14 teams, instead of eight.
Le wants to get above .500 and feel like her team earned a post-season berth, something Brandon hasn’t done in her time. She admits it’s been one tough pill to swallow after another, especially after her club team "won everything under the sun."
But she feels this group is older, more experienced and flat-out better than her previous BU teams. They pushed through the cancelled 2020-21 season with key veterans sticking around for each other.
The group changed quite a bit over that time as some players quit and others were kicked off the team. Le said that’s all "outside noise," and in the past.
What’s left is one tight-knit core of veterans and a promising young crop soaking up everything they can before they’re forced to step up and take over together.
They get a month to tune up for a three-match round-robin that they must finish first or second in to advance. Even one playoff win would be history: a first for the program.
"Man, it’s been a journey since our first years," Le said. "Ups and downs, really low lows but also really high highs. Right now we realize we’re so lucky to have this opportunity to play during a pandemic and play with such talented girls.
"We don’t want to waste this opportunity."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen