Thriving Athletes, Championship Teams: Building a Top Canadian Volleyball Program
Gabriel (Gabe) deGroot waits at the corner of Aberdeen and Earl Street on a snowy February morning before finding a gap in traffic and darting across to the gym. It reminds him of old times, walking
through the Ottewell neighbourhood in Edmonton to early-morning volleyball practices at The King’s University.
His commute to school is a little longer now than it was then—a brisk 20 minutes on a good day—and Gabe’s walk now takes him past century-old limestone buildings and red brick homes. Sometimes, in the dead of winter when the wind shifts to blow cold air from over Lake Ontario, his walk can be downright chilly!
Gabe is now the head coach of the men’s volleyball program at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. He joined the program in 2011 as an assistant coach and was named head coach in 2018 after a national
head-hunting process. Every day he works to further develop one of Canada’s top men’s volleyball programs.
His morning begins with individual training sessions on the court with his athletes. He then spends time in his office communicating with top recruits and prospects across North America. Afterward, Gabe meticulously plans and runs two-hour daily practices with the entire team.
Then comes video—hours and hours of rewinding and analyzing plays, breaking down systems, and planning new strategies, all to take his knowledge of the game to the next level and better his team.
“I usually get to the gym at 8 a.m., and rarely leave before 8 at night,” laughs Gabe. Twelve-hour days are what it takes to compete at one of the highest levels of volleyball in the country. “I’m here, we’re here, to win championships.”
Gabe loves to compete but his motivation goes far beyond winning tournaments. Student-athletes sometimes need help balancing the workload that comes with studying at a prestigious university with
15 hours of weekly practice time and socializing, but Gabe is dedicated to helping his players thrive in their university experience. Currently 12 out of 18 players on his team are academic all-Canadians in
programs ranging from law to engineering.
Gabe himself excelled as a student-athlete at King’s. He came in as a setter but his coach at the time, Greg Bartel, quickly switched him to libero. Gabe credits Bartel’s insights and passion for the sport for
setting him up for success. After a stellar couple of years starting for the Eagles, he transferred to the University of Guelph where he played out the rest of his eligibility in the Ontario University Athletics
Conference (OUA), receiving the Libero of the Year award two years in a row.
Gabe had a more challenging time with academics. In 2008 King’s offered far less support for students who required it and, unfortunately, Gabe left King’s not feeling thrilled about his academic experience. “There just wasn’t enough support for athletes like me at the time,” he muses. Overall, though, Gabe thinks fondly on his time at King’s. Like many King’s students, he moved into a small house with seven other guys in the Ottewell neighbourhood. There he learned the value of building
Ironically, Gabe never planned on sticking with volleyball when he first began his career as a student-athlete. “I set out to start a construction business with my brother,” he laughs. Yet the passion for
building relationships and excelling at his sport that developed during his time at King’s has seen him advance further in his athletic career than he ever imagined. Just this year, the Queen's Gaels took first place in the OUA provincial championships and Gabe was voted 2018-19 Coach of the Year by his colleagues. Last summer, Gabe had the opportunity to be an assistant coach with the National Men’s Indoor Senior B team. He dreams of working for the national program one day.
“Not one day goes by that I don’t love my job,” says Gabe. “It’s inspiring to see young men develop into excellent student-athletes and move on to great careers. I’m honoured to be a part of that journey.”
By Nikolas VanderKooy