Monday, March 22, 2010

Eastern Promise: Gabe deGroot on playing libero and switching from the ACAC to CIS

This is a little old, but I didn't get the time to do it before now, and I think it's still interesting. I've talked about the implications of national recruiting in CIS recently, and this fits right into that. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a feature for the Langley Times on my old high school volleyball teammate Gabe deGroot, who led the Guelph Gryphons to the Ontario final (where they lost a five-set thriller to Queen's).

deGroot's story is interesting from a couple of perspectives. For one thing, he went from high school volleyball at a small AA school in B.C. (Fraser Valley Christian) to playing for The King's University College in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference to spending the last two years with Guelph. For another, he made the transition to CIS volleyball very smoothly, claiming the OUA libero of the year award in both seasons he played with the Gryphons. That's even more impressive when you consider that he changed positions midway through his career; he was a setter in high school and in his first two years at King's, but then switched to libero.

Now deGroot's CIS career is finished, he's hoping to play professionally in Europe, which is another unique element of this story; men's volleyball is one CIS sport that actually sees a lot of players go pro, which speaks to its quality. One example would be former Queen's setter Devon Miller, who I profiled in 2008. Anyway, deGroot had some interesting thoughts on switching schools, provinces and positions; you can check them out in the story below.

Photo: Gabe deGroot (5) makes a dig in the OUA final against Queen's. [Photo supplied by Guelph Athletics]

Andrew Bucholtz
Times Reporter

Gabriel deGroot has found volleyball success in some unlikely places. After growing up in Langley and playing for the local Fraser Valley Volleyball Club and Surrey's Fraser Valley Christian Falcons, deGroot headed to Edmonton to play for The King's University College Eagles in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. He spent three years with the Eagles before transferring to the University of Guelph in 2008 and playing for the Gryphons in Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition, which he said turned into a great decision.

"It's been awesome," he said. "It's been an amazing experience."

It often takes college players a while to adjust to the university level, but deGroot found success quickly. He switched from setter to libero in his final year with the Eagles and carried on at libero with the Gryphons, claiming Ontario University Athletics' libero of the year award in both 2008-09 and 2009-10.

deGroot said the libero position, which was introduced into international volleyball in 1998, has added a lot to the game. Liberos are defensive specialists who sub in for weak passers during their backcourt rotations and often make the crucial first dig on serves or spikes.

As liberos aren't allowed to spike or block above the net, height is less important than it is at other positions; deGroot, at 6'2'', is one of the taller liberos in CIS competition but one of the shortest players on his team. He said his height does give him an advantage, though.

"Being tall, you can cover more ground," he said. "It's still a tall man's game."

deGroot said the transition from setter to libero took a lot of work, but his setting experience has helped him in his new role.

"As a setter, you kind of see the whole game," he said. "Working with my setter, I know what he's thinking; I know what he needs."

deGroot said there was also a significant increase in pressure and level of play when he moved from the ACAC to CIS competition, but he thrived under those higher expectations.

"It's a whole new stage," he said. "I've had to push myself every day, but it's definitely a jump I was ready to make."

deGroot led the Gryphons to the OUA final Saturday, where they lost a five-set thriller against the Queen's University Golden Gaels. deGroot was named Guelph's player of the game in the loss. He said he was proud of the honour, but disappointed to fall just two points short of an OUA championship and a berth at the CIS national championships.

"It was definitely an honour, but I'd trade it for a win," he said. "I keep playing those last five to 10 points back in my head."

The Gryphons placed fifth in the OUA regular season with an 11-9 record, but made a successful playoff run, knocking off the fourth-seeded Windsor Lancers and the top-seeded McMaster Marauders in five sets each to advance to the final against Queen's. deGroot said the Gryphons had more talent than their record indicated, but it took them a while to play cohesively.

"Probably halfway through the season, we had a total turnaround," he said. "We never played as a unit before that."

deGroot said the win over McMaster was particularly sweet, as the Marauders beat the Gryphons in the OUA semifinals last season. The Gryphons lost the first two sets, but rallied to win three straight. deGroot said the atmosphere inspired them, as plenty of Guelph fans made the trip to Hamilton to cheer the Gryphons on and matched the McMaster crowd in volume.

"It was a crazy environment to be playing in," he said.

The OUA currently only receives one spot at the nationals, so the Gryphons' season ended Saturday. The spots are determined based on conferences' past performances, which deGroot said he thinks is fair. He said he thinks Ontario schools will do well enough in the future to earn more berths.

"I'm not bitter about it," he said. "I think it needs to change, but it needs to change from a skill level perspective, Ontario volleyball is getting better."

This marked deGroot's fifth and final season of post-secondary athletic eligibility, so his university career is over. He's hoping to continue with volleyball, though, and is planning to pursue professional opportunities in Europe once he completes his sociology degree this year.

"I definitely want to play at a professional level," he said.

His love for volleyball isn't a recent development, but it still burns strong.

"It's a great team game," he said. "It's been a passion of mine my entire life."

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