Volleyball has become more than a “side sport” for Jacob Van Groningen.
First-year program Vanguard University may have landed a diamond in the rough in the 6-foot-4 outside hitter from Ripon Christian despite his inexperience. On April 13, Van Groningen committed to play for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school based in Costa Mesa.
Van Groningen has keyed Ripon Christian’s sudden rise to power in a sport that had not been offered to male athletes at high schools in the region until 2017. The Knights reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final last season and competed in the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal Regionals.
“Most of my life, I always wanted to play basketball in college,” Van Groningen said. “What really changed my mind was about halfway through volleyball season last year when things were really clicking together for us as a group. It was starting to be more fun. I always had fun, but it also got very competitive as we made it pretty far in the playoffs.
“That’s when it began to interest me. It was not just that side sport to mess around with anymore. I saw it as an opportunity for me to go to that next level with this sport.”
Volleyball has always been part of his family. His mom, Jaime, played at Stanislaus State, and younger sister Emily is the standout middle blocker for Ripon Christian’s girls team. Emily is a reigning Co-MVP in the Southern Athletic League, and she helped catapult Ripon Christian to the SJS Division V title.
Jacob was a versatile threat across three different sports at Ripon Christian, and he got to compete for section championships in all of them.
In the fall, he played quarterback, tight end, safety and kicker for the football team that advanced to the 2018 SJS Division VI championship game. He was also the do-it-all wing for the Knights basketball team, which he helped win the CIF NorCal Division VI crown on March 10.
Three days later, he and cousin Braden Van Groningen — voted All-Trans Valley League Co-MVP — played their first volleyball match of 2020. It turned out to be their last.
That same day, school districts in San Joaquin County began announcing temporary closures of its schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three weeks later, the rest of the spring sports season was cancelled.
“I was looking forward to it,” Van Groningen said. “We had been talking about it since we lost our last game last year in NorCal. We had big plans to make it far in the playoffs again, win sections and try to win state.”
Following the 2019 volleyball season, the Van Groningen cousins made the Ripon Rage Volleyball Club 18-under team over the summer. That was when their talents for the sport blossomed, and together they traveled to Orange County to meet with Vanguard head coach Brad Rostratter.
Jacob was blown away and could see himself at that school. Braden, only a junior, still has some time to decide.
“The campus is pretty cool, and everything about it like the location was appealing to me,” Jacob Van Groningen said.
Vanguard, a member of the Golden State Athletic Conference, was enjoying a successful inaugural season before the affects of the coronavirus crisis struck. The Lions were 10-8 overall and 6-3 in the GSAC while sophomore outside hitter Kyle Anema — a NAIA first-team All-American and Newcomer of the Year — established himself as a budding star.
“The level of volleyball play I saw from the team, I think that would be a good next step in my volleyball career,” Van Groningen said. “I just knew that’s where I want to be in the future.”
Following their visit, the Van Groningens entered Northern California Volleyball Association Sand Beach Open Championships in Santa Cruz — and won. Jacob said he had never thought to compete in sand volleyball until Rage coach Carl Wheeler encouraged them give it a shot.
“It helped develop my game and take it to a different level,” Van Groningen said. “It taught me to control different parts of the game I don’t normally get to work on. Braden and I both had to learn how to set, which is something we never do. There are key parts to the game we missed out on in 6-on-6 indoor volleyball. It was a fun experience.”
It marked the end of a busy summer and the beginning of a busy senior year for Van Groningen, who misses the hustle and bustle.
“I definitely had no off time,” he said. “I went from that to having all this down time right now with the coronavirus situation, which is kind of weird. I have to figure out ways to stay active and keep my body healthy for college.”