The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
From 2013 through 2016, Teegan Van Gunst and Annika Rowland (formerly Van Gust) proved masters of the volleyball court at outside hitter and middle blocker — both finished with more than 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs.
Since graduating in 2016, they’ve continued their mastership, playing beach volleyball for Georgia State in 2018, and embarking on professional careers, while continuing to shine in the classroom — they’re within one semester of completing master’s degrees in business administration.
“It’s a lot different than engineering, so our course structures are a lot different,” said Teegan, a two-time first-team all-ACC selection, who also played with Team USA at the 2017 University Games in Taipei. “Obviously, graduate school has its own challenges, so definitely academics have challenged us in a different way than Georgia Tech had but we’ve enjoyed learning new topics and new things.”
“Graduate school is definitely very different than undergrad, mainly for the fact that we’ve switched from engineering to business. But it’s been really great,” agreed Annika, a four-time ACC academic honor roll honoree. “We had a great experience at Georgia State playing with the girls. I’ve learned a lot about beach volleyball, a lot we didn’t realize we were going to be in for. Getting to play a different sport collegiately, getting to see a totally different environment of the collegiate side of sports, especially with beach volleyball being one of the newest sports, seeing it grow and how it’s taken off even since we started playing last year, was really awesome. It was such a cool experience to get to do that and to get to play our fifth year and now almost have a completed master’s degree.”
“Some people have wondered why we got engineering degrees,” Annika added, with a laugh. “Teegan and my response is, ‘That’s a good question. Because we’re not really sure what we want to do with it yet, either. We just like math and science and it came relatively easy to us and so that’s what we went with.’”
Led by the Fayetteville, Ga., natives, the Yellow Jackets program had its best season in 12 years in 2016, going 24-8, 15-5 in ACC play, just missing out on the NCAA Tournament.
They were determined not to miss out on a chance to use one more year of eligibility to play beach volleyball. So once they got their mechanical engineering degrees, they decided to go crosstown and hit the sand courts at Panthersville.
It didn’t take long to make a big impact.
After 13 matches with established GSU players — Teegan, who was 9-4 playing at No. 1 with Tiffany Creamer, and Annika, who was 10-3 playing at 2, with Brooke Weiner — the sisters found themselves paired at 1 on May 18 in Columbia, S.C. They would face off against the nation’s top-ranked team, Pepperdine’s Brook Bauer and Madalyn Roh.
They spotted Bauer and Roh the first set, 21-19, then took the final two, 23-21 and 15-13.
“That’s one I think I’ll never forget because that was actually Annika’s and my first match together,” Teegan recalled. “That was our first beach volleyball real match together. Three-setter, tough match. They were great players. It was pretty unforgettable.”
“That was so much fun,” Annika agreed. “The adrenaline was so high. We found out the night before that we would be playing together for the first time and our parents were going to be there. So we were already stoked. We had been hoping for that up until that point that season. We had a lot to learn before that so it was good that we were with other people to start off with but then the adrenaline of knowing that we were going to get to play together, our family was going to be there and it was going to be against the top team at that point in the nation, a team from California. It was just such a fun match and then we came away with the win, which was awesome.”
Beating the best in the country left them kind of with the quandary of where do they go from here?
“We just kind of rode the wave of it, honestly,” Annika said. “We just were like, ‘Now we have that match under our belt — and we got the win thankfully.’ The confidence it gave us and the excitement it gave us getting to play together, it’s something we had been looking forward to doing. We were just trying to carry the momentum forward, knowing that each match was going to be equally as hard because now we had a target on our back. We just beat them and that news had gotten out and now other teams wanted to beat us. So it just gave us more drive and more passion to get better and just to compete just as hard as we did in that match.”
“Coming off that win, you’re like, ‘This is awesome!’ But then reality hits and you hit low points,” said Teegan. “Just the perseverance to work through, knowing the potential that we do have and the capabilities that we do have to play at a high level and figuring out how to do that consistently. That’s kind of what we’ve been working on over the past year is how can we continue to grow in the game but become more and more consistent with what we do? How can we best control our side of the net? Annika and I are still working out different things to continue to get better at that.”
They’d win seven of their first eight matches together and finish 13-8 (45-23 in games), winning 10 matches in straight sets and their success proved something of a harbinger for GSU, which was 12-1 in matches when the sisters won. They’d be rewarded by being named to VolleyballMag.com’s All-America team.
While they were moving to the head of the class on the beach, they took their rightful place in the classroom, both making Dean’s List in the Fall and Spring semesters of 2018.
“It was exciting to get on the Dean’s List again, just to perform well in school,” said Annika. “We don’t stress ourselves out about grades because we know at the end of the day we’ll make it happen and a degree is what’s really important, especially a Master’s degree, but we do work hard at our studies. We’ll have three more classes to complete in the fall and then we will graduate and have masters’ in business administration come December.”
Annika and Teegan will be taking a break from their concentration in general business, turning their total concentration to the Association of Volleyball Professionals Tour. The tour kicked off in early May and has an eight-event schedule, culminating with the Hawaii Open, Sept. 20-22. They hope to debut at the next event the Gold Series, New York City Open, June 7-9 at Gansevoort Peninsula in Hudson River Park.
Teams pay their own entry fees and travel expenses — although there are sponsorship opportunities, ranging from gear to temporary tattoos — and gain points based on their success during the season. As the duo doesn’t have any points yet, they’ll play in the qualifiers on Thursday, June 6, vying for the final six-or-so wildcard spots to get into the weekend.
It’s a grind but one they’re excited to pursue.
“We’re looking forward to the rest of the summer,” said Annika. “This is really our first summer of calling ourselves professionals, and really being on our own as far as training and finding coaches and finding time to practice and just really running our own business, doing something that we’re super-passionate about, just traveling all over the country, trying to play in different tournaments, trying to get experience and just really putting ourselves out there.”
“Last summer was kind of our first season but we didn’t play all of the main-draw AVP tournaments,” said Teegan. “We were down in Florida for a lot of the summer, playing in some smaller local tournaments and then at the end of the season we played in the last two AVP tournaments in Manhattan Beach and Chicago. We were qualified for the main draw for both of those, which was awesome. So last season we were just learning the ropes and how points work and all that kind of stuff to be able to play in AVP tournaments. This summer is really our first summer where we’re expanding more into all of the AVP tournaments through the U.S. We’ll see how that goes.”
They’ve also kicked around the idea of opening a family-run engineering firm — what else, with a family full of mechanical engineers — their dad, they and both of their brothers all have ME degrees.
“A lot of people have suggested that because there’s a lot of engineers in my family,” Teegan said, with a laugh. “Now we’re getting the Business degrees, maybe an engineering firm where Annika and I handle the business side and our brothers and dad might take over the actual engineering side. We’ll see.”
“Our younger brother has always joked that he’s going to start a business and it’s going to become a family thing since we’re all engineers,” said Annika. “I’m not so sure that’s going to work out, but you never know. Possibilities are endless.”