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Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008| Never let it be said that the University of San Diego women’s volleyball program won’t recruit far and wide for its next All-American player to lead the Toreros to an NCAA Tournament.

Case in point: This year one of their All-American candidates is from Frenchtown, Montana.

Big Sky Country isn’t exactly a mecca for women’s volleyball, but that’s where the Toreros found Amy Mahinalani DeGroot. Well, actually, says USD coach Jen Petrie, DeGroot found them.

“We recruited her off of film,” Petrie said. “We knew she was athletic and quick, but what we didn’t know is how that would translate to this level. But she’s not only translated her skills, she’s become an All-American-type player.”

DeGroot, a 6-foot-2 junior, was a first-team All-West Coast Conference pick last year that led the Toreros to a West Coast Conference title and the NCAA Tournament. This year she’s led USD to a 10-2 start and No. 16 national ranking as the Toreros prepare for their WCC openers, this Thursday against Gonzaga and again Saturday against the University of Portland at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

“We’re ranked well again, but we’re hoping to break through and get past the Sweet Sixteen this year,” DeGroot said. “It’s pressure, but we’ve been working hard and we’re ready for it.”

I’ve said this before, but All-American players, national rankings and NCAA Tournament trips are nothing new for USD’s women’s volleyball. The Toreros, underappreciated by the local media, are the most consistent winners in a city starving for national prominence in college athletics. USD’s goal of reaching the Elite Eight in 2008 is a realistic one because the Toreros have a track record.

They’ve been to the Sweet Sixteen twice in the past four years, in 2004 and 2006.

They’ve been to seven straight NCAA Tournaments and 11 in the past 12 seasons.

They’ve had five players earn All-American honors since 2004. Last year’s absence broke a string of three straight appearances.

In 2004, Devon Forster was second team, Lindsey Sherburne was third team and Kristen Hurst was honorable mention. In 2005, Christie Dawson was anhonorable mention. In 2006, Kristen Carlson was third team.

That track record is one of the reasons DeGroot found USD.

“The schools around me knew about me,” DeGroot said of scholarship offers in volleyball and basketball from Montana and Montana State. “But I had to send out my stuff for out-of-state schools.”

If that sounds archaic in the modern world of college recruiting, it’s because it is. But not because Frenchtown, a small community of 889 denizens near the capital of Missoula, is a mountain outpost far from civilization.

It was because DeGroot didn’t play much club volleyball. She could have, but she was too busy developing her all-around athleticism.

She spent the winter as one of the top basketball players in the state as a point guard and shooting guard. In the spring, she had the foresight to develop her athleticism by competing in track and field rather than traveling with a club volleyball team to weekend tournaments.

“I had a very good track coach, and I think it worked out well for me,”

DeGroot said. “I’m a better all-around athlete, and I didn’t get burned out on volleyball.”

Her athleticism was obvious enough on tape that USD wasn’t the only school to offer her a scholarship. DeGroot narrowed her scholarship offers to a final three, picking USD over the University of Southern California and University of California Santa Barbara.

Next began the process of polishing her game. As a freshman, USD played her in the middle and on the right side. But Petrie and assistant coach Brent Hilliard viewed her as a natural outside hitter and looked ahead to moving her there in 2007 to replace Carlson, the 2006 third-team All-American.

“She’s quick, she’s got great hang time and she can see the blocker well,” Petrie s aid. “She can get the ball around the blocker.”

In the spring following her freshman season, DeGroot got the repetitions she needed to develop her skills as an outside hitter. This year the Toreros aren’t afraid to leave her alone for blocks. It’s similar to a football coach leaving a cornerback “on an island” to cover a wide receiver without help.

“She’s one of the hardest workers; there’s never a time when she’s slacking,” Petrie said. “I’d say she’s one of the best blockers in the country. We’ll leave her alone on the left side.”

But Petrie might want to be careful about leaving her alone in the JCP shooting baskets, something DeGroot still enjoys when she’s finished with her volleyball workouts. At least, that is, if she’s worried about DeGroot renewing her talent as a 6-2 point guard or shooting guard.

Women’s basketball coach Cindy Fisher, whose team advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year, might see her. And she won’t need a video to spot her athleticism.

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