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#TGW: Finding Her Beach

June 13, 2017

This story originally appeared in the Spring, 2017 issue of Buzz magazine. Read the entire issue online or subscribe to the magazine here.

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

Teegan Van Gunst loves the game of volleyball.

Even after four years of grinding it out for Georgia Tech at O’Keefe Gym and around the ACC, Van Gunst didn’t want to stop playing. But she found herself at a crossroads.

She could pursue playing professionally. She had the resume. In her years on the Flats, she compiled 1,453 kills (10th in Georgia Tech history), improving every season, including nailing 507 (4.19 per set) her senior year (10th-most in a season in school history). She twice earned honorable mention All-America, AVCA All-Region and first-team All-ACC, and became the school’s first ACC volleyball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Last season, Van Gunst led the Jackets to a third-place tie in the ACC and their best season (24-8, .750) and ACC season (15-5, .750) since 2004.

Continuing playing indoors could fast-track an opportunity of trying out for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as she was already on USA Volleyball’s radar, working out with the U.S. Collegiate National Team last summer in Indianapolis. But playing professionally also likely meant moving overseas and playing internationally.

The other option was following an academic route, pursuing her Master’s.

At Georgia Tech she proved as much of a star in the classroom as on the court. She twice was named CoSIDA Academic All-America, on three occasions being named Academic All-ACC, and last season being one of four Georgia Tech student-athletes (including teammate Lauren Pitz), 54 throughout the ACC, and only 29 female student-athletes to win the 2017 Weaver-James-Corrigan Award, which provided a $5,000 postgraduate scholarship.

Her life was up in the air — it was the real-life version of having to choose how to play an oncoming set — slam it down the line, blast it crosscourt or dink it just over the block.

As on the court, Teegan made just the right move.

“Right now I’m thinking an MBA is what I would want to pursue next,” she said. “So not necessarily continue in the higher-ups of engineering but kind of get that balance of an engineering degree from Georgia Tech plus an MBA for whenever I decide to go into the workforce.”

The Weaver-James-Corrigan Award especially meant a lot to her.

“That was super-exciting,” said Van Gunst, whose academic excellence was part of Georgia Tech volleyball’s commitment, which earned a top-10 national ranking in Academic Progress Rate (APR) for the second straight year. “It’s a testament to how hard I’ve worked in the classroom, and the other athletes here that have gotten it and want to move on and pursue graduate school.”

Ever-resourceful, she found a way to have her cake and eat it, too. She could pursue her Master’s AND keep playing volleyball. But there would be a twist.

She’d have a potential year of eligibility — you’re permitted a fifth calendar year — but would have to do so in a different sport — so she decided to try her hand at beach volleyball.

Adding an extra layer of icing to this cake is that of the 73 schools that have beach volleyball programs, one of them is Georgia State, part of the 10-team Coastal Collegiate Sports Association (CCSA). Pursuing her Master’s at GSU would allow her to stay close to Atlanta and her family.

The cherry on top of the cake is that she could take part of her family with her, twin sister Annika, her teammate for four years at Tech who also would be the perfect partner in the two-woman game.

“We were hoping we could stay together and pursue this as a team,” said Teegan, “Beach is the way that Annika and I, wanted to prolong our playing careers.

“We contacted a few schools out west and Florida schools. We were looking for schools that might have some scholarship money for us, just to help with grad school financially,” she added. “Just like any recruit coming in as an undergrad, you have to look at what the school offers. In-state, obviously, the tuition is lower so the part that isn’t covered for scholarship, that type of thing.”

“Georgia State did offer us and it was very appealing because they are here and a lot of our family is here,” said Annika. “We knew that we could have a similar experience as what we had at Tech, which we thoroughly enjoyed. We were looking at some other schools down South Florida, but it came down to location and the level of the team that we would be competing on. We were going to go as a pair just for the opportunity to play as a pair. That was our main goal.”

As the Van Gunsts were doing their due diligence in narrowing their choices, they also got advice from Georgia Tech volleyball head coach Michelle Collier, their coach for three seasons.

“She’s definitely been a great resource,” said Teegan. “We just kind of picked her brain about the two different options and what the benefits are of both of them. She grew up playing beach, too, so she’s good at the game. We had a couple of workouts a couple of springs ago, we played some beach with her so she’s definitely a great resource that we’ll continue to use in the future.”

While beach volleyball presents a new challenge, Collier has no doubt that Teegan and Annika will be up to the task.

“I think that Teegan is smart enough that she’s going to make a quick adjustment,” she said. “She’s a good all-around player. I think that when players go from indoor to sand, that’s one of the biggest things they struggle with, having to do all parts of the game well, from passing to setting. You have to do everything. There’s only you and someone else there. I think that fits her game really well — her’s and Annika’s. I have no doubt they’re going to be successful.”

The twins displayed their all-around excellence while with the Jackets, as they’re two of only nine players in program history to record 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs. That commitment to both sides of the game bodes well, even with all the differences in going from inside to outside.

“Obviously, there’s the physical aspect of not jumping as high as you’re used to jumping indoors. It’s a lot smaller steps because in the sand you can’t take huge lunges or else you’re not going to be able to get very far,” Teegan pointed out. “The approach is a little different also in beach. It’s a lot shorter and compact in your spacing. It’s more of the agility and movement on the court that changes a lot. But beach is a great all-around game. You have to be able to do all facets of the game to be able to be successful, so that’s kind of what I’m looking forward to.”

Then there’s the extra 34 percent of court coverage for which she’ll be responsible.

“There are just two people, it’s you and your partner and you have to figure it out,” she said. “There’s not a lot of coaching that happens during the course of the match. It’s figuring out how to work with your partner well and just problem-solve as you’re playing.”

The duo expects to be quick studies and continue to make each other better as partners, the same way they did at Georgia Tech.

“Teegan and I both are extreme competitors and just knowing the sibling rivalry in general, whenever we were split and we were facing each other there was always extreme competitiveness,” Annika said. “You always knew she would bring her highest level and I also wanted to bring my highest level of play. We’d try to one-up the other one, just like you would in any sibling relationship. No one ever wanted to lose. We did compete against each other in practice a lot but I think it only made us better. “Of course there would always be bantering,” she added, with a laugh. “You have to let (the other) know you won that day but the next day if you talked too much she’d whoop up on you and then you get it right back in your face. So it kind of went back and forth the whole time.”

It seems that the stars have aligned and Teegan plans to follow those stars, wherever the road may go. She hasn’t ruled out going back to playing indoors once she’s gotten her Master’s and still harbors that Olympic dream.

But for now, she’ll just hit the beach, grateful for where she’s been and optimistic about where she can go.

“It’s definitely been a journey the past four years,” she said. “It’s just doing what I do. Just keep progressing and becoming a better player and person then all that stuff will take care of itself and I’ll end up where I’m supposed to be. So it’s definitely exciting times. I’m a little nervous with the unknowns but I’m excited to see what’s ahead.”


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