In his first appearance of the 2021 season, pitcher Boyd Vander-Kooi recorded two outs on 14 pitches against the Sacramento State Hornets and left the game. It would turn out to be his last appearance that season, later learning he would need Tommy John Surgery.
“I had a lot of mixed emotions, it sucks that it happened at that time,” Vander-Kooi said. “Getting older, I kind of wish that it happened when I was a freshman or earlier on in my career.”
Vander-Kooi, now a redshirt senior, dealt with elbow pain from time to time throughout his collegiate career and coaches struggled to diagnose the issue. Then, entering the 2021 season, Vander-Kooi experienced pain every day during warmups and bullpen sessions.
He went in for an MRI and was given the news. Although that kind of news may be disheartening for some, Vander-Kooi reacted in a positive matter.
“I pitched through the pain until I couldn’t anymore,” Vander-Kooi said. “In a way, I was glad that we solved the problem and found the answer.”
Vander-Kooi rehabbed for the next six months, primarily working up his strength. For the first week, he worked on squeezing a stress ball, saying "it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done." He also began to work with weights. It was months before he was able to widen his range and eventually began throwing baseballs.
Vander-Kooi then worked his way to throwing bullpen sessions and getting back into playing shape.
"The first phase is a 12-week phase, we had him throw him up to 120 feet, and then shut him down for another six weeks for him to recover," assistant athletic trainer Jesse Lowman said. "After those six weeks of rest, he began to transition into a more competitive program, working out at a normal level and doing more of what a healthy pitcher can do."
Vander-Kooi made his first appearance since having surgery on Feb. 20 against Dixie State, recording two outs before being taken out.
“Although we were smoking (Dixie State), I was pretty nervous,” Vander-Kooi said. “Once I threw that first pitch, I was right back in it.”
As Vander-Kooi walked toward the dugout, he received a standing ovation from the crowd and was greeted by teammates and coaches. His trainer and biggest mentor, Lowman, gave him a hug, crying in tears of joy with the progress they made.
“I told him initially that it wasn’t going to be fun, that he’ll be frustrated,” Lowman said. “It was my mission to help him through every stage, the mental and physical process of it all. The kid is like a little brother to me, and I hope I’ve earned the title of being a big brother to him.”
Vander-Kooi has made three total appearances this season, pitching to a 2.08 ERA across 4.1 innings. Vander-Kooi suffered a setback in his most recent outing against San Diego State University, surrendering three runs, two unearned, and taken out after 54 pitches, the most he’s thrown in an appearance this season.
“Coming off a major injury like he’s had, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” head coach Willie Bloomquist said. “You’ll have weeks where you feel good and weeks you don’t, we anticipated that this would happen.”
Lowman said Vander-Kooi is progressing well and would be available to pitch at some point in the home series against Washington from March 25-27.
“I love the kid, his work ethic says a lot about him as a person,” Lowman said. “There’s not one athlete that I’ve worked with in my 15 years of doing this that hasn’t put in effort to return to the game like Boyd Vander-Kooi.”
Aaron Schmidt is a sports reporter who covers ASU Baseball and ASU Women’s Golf for The State Press. He previously covered Higley High School football for AZPreps365.