Writer Tom Scanlon
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Boulder Creek High School boys’ volleyball team just capped perhaps the most impressive sports season in the school’s history, finishing with a dazzling 45-2 record and winning coach Troy Dueling’s second state title in three years.
Those statistics coupled with the fact that all four of this year’s seniors will be playing college volleyball are pretty admirable, but the cool factor is further spiked by this news: three of the Jaguars will be playing together in college.
While Andrew deLeon will travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to study and play ball at Loras College, Bryce Whitman, Liam Santa Cruz and Grady O’Neil will be on the court together at Lourdes University. The fast-rising Lourdes volleyball program was ranked No. 7 among National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools this season, with coach Greg Reitz posting a 90-40 record over the last five seasons. Lourdes finished this season with a glittery 22-5 record.
How did three guys from Anthem end up headed for this small (2,500 students) university 15 miles from Toledo, Ohio?
“They were traveling with the Arizona Fear,” Dueling explains, referring to the club team, “and got picked up. We were at a club tournament and (Lourdes recruiters) approached me because I’m the club director. They were interested in Liam and Bryce, and later saw film of Grady and wanted him.”
Santa Cruz said that, after being recruited at the California tournament, “We visited the school and knew it would be the school.”
O’Neil admitted he was dragging his feet a bit about the playing in college thing.
“Originally just Bryce and Liam were going to go to Lourdes,” he said. “Then Andrew committed to Loras and I was the only senior who wasn’t going to play in college — not because of a lack of skill, but from a lack of reaching out to coaches and things like that. After the season started, I was extremely motivated to play volleyball in college, and I heard the libero (a defensive specialist position) at Lourdes is an upperclassman. So I decided to reach out to them to see if they would take me, and it all worked out.”
They’ve spent four years playing high school and club volleyball together, grinding through practices and traveling all over the state. So … aren’t they sick of each other?
“I don’t get sick of my three boys ever,” said Whitman. “We have a really good bond.”
O’Neil seconded that: “We never get sick of each other. We’re all friends off the court as well as on and we’re all great teammates to each other. We have a great, unbreakable bond.”
“So far, we’ve made it four years without getting on each other’s nerves,” Santa Cruz chimed in. “Hopefully we can make it another four years.”
DeLeon, the odd man out who is headed to Loras, expects the Lourdes-bound trio to remain tight.
“As much as people think all of the guys would get sick of each other, they’re wrong,” he said. “Since sophomore year, we have all been best friends, always hanging out or talking. So I highly doubt they would get sick of each other.”
While Whitman, O’Neil and Santa Cruz will share the transition to college classes and sports far away from home, deLeon will feel the chill of Midwest winter on his own.
“I’m a little jealous of them, to be honest,” he said. “I chose Loras because on my official visit, every single guy made me feel at home, and from there on I knew it was an instant choice for me. Yes, it’s a little out of my comfort zone with the climate and everything, but it’s a change we all needed, including the Lourdes guys.”
The coach of these boys-becoming-men is proud of how far they have journeyed.
“It’s definitely a very special group of seniors,” Dueling said, “both personally and to the program, as well. They’ve been very, very selfless — they’re about the team and the program, not about themselves. They allow themselves to be coached, to be humbled in front of the team. With those guys on board, how does the culture of the gym not get better?”
Over the last few years, Dueling has built a powerhouse volleyball program at BC. After the 2014 team won the state championship, four of the seniors from that team went on to play in college. In addition to this year’s four college-bound players, Dueling said he has a few juniors and underclassmen with the talent to play beyond BC.
His subtle message to Anthem parents: “If kids start playing early enough, that could be them.”
While only the top high school volleyballers get the full ride, many receive partial scholarships that can combine with academic scholarships.
They will have to earn their keep, as the level of play is about to escalate for the four BC volleyball seniors.
“The speed of the game and physicality of the game makes it different from high school,” Dueling noted about college play. “They’re going to have to get in the gym and spend time around kids playing faster than them.”
But the coach says these kids have the skills and heart to meet the challenges they will face.
These four seniors did not get to play much two years ago, when they were 10th graders amid a senior-led lineup that won the state championship. Dueling thought he had a second wave of top players, but added, “Two years is a long time. You don’t know if they’re going to lose interest. … I thought there was the makings of something special. It took two years of long nights and practices, grinding it out.”
Two years after that first state championship, Dueling reflects on this group of seniors: “They’ve really stuck to the plan. They’ve never wavered on what the coaching staff wanted to do, even when it didn’t fit their individual desires. Best group of seniors I’ve had the pleasure of coaching.”
In turn, the seniors thanked their coaches and families for the support they have received in four years at BC.
After rolling through the first three rounds of the playoffs by a combined score of 12-0, Boulder Creek faced Perry in the May 14 championship. Following the coach’s “get better every day” philosophy, the four seniors came through, leading the Jaguars to a 3-1 victory, closing out their high school careers with a satisfying spike.