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New and improved Jeff VanderSpank introduced as new recruit for football Gaels

April 26, 2014

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Not so long ago, for Jeff VanderSpank, Queen’s University was a place you drove through on the way to the hospital. It was not someplace to hang his academic hat.

After he was introduced Friday as one of 11 new recruits for the Golden Gaels football team, VanderSpank explained just how long a shot his presence at an introductory news conference would have been as recently as last September.

He recalled a September conversation he had with his coach at Ernestown Secondary School, Lou Bilkovski.

“He asked me at the very start of the season, after the first practice, ‘Have you ever considered going to Queen’s?’ and I said, ‘I could never do that.’ I never really had the academics for it.

“He said you can do anything you want to do. He pushed me and pushed me and here I am now.”

A two-way force on the field for an Ernestown team that had 19 players on a good day, VanderSpank was something less of a force in the classroom.

“I just went through high school coasting, not really pushing myself too hard,” VanderSpank said. “This past year I actually tried. It’s been different, that’s for sure, a big change this year from the four years before.”

Bilkovski says he makes it part of his early-season routine to talk to his players about their post-secondary plans. “I hear from guys who say college, or maybe university, but if I look at a player and I think, ‘OK, maybe he doesn’t believe he can do it,’ that’s who I’ll start approaching.”

VanderSpank was such a player.

“I saw a lot in Jeff in terms of his talent, and as we spoke he was telling me he was planning on going to Trent. I said, ‘Well, Trent’s fine, but have you thought about Queen’s?’ He said, ‘Well, no, not at all. Queen’s? I don’t know if I can get in there.’”

With marks in the mid-seventies, VanderSpank was on the wrong side of the admissions line at Queen’s but Bilkovski implored the young man to persevere. VanderSpank relented, and agreed to be more friendly with the books. “He took it on,” Bilkovski said. “He excelled for us on the field and his whole attitude changed.”

VanderSpank said he actually enjoyed re-inventing himself.

“It was more interesting, that’s for sure,” he said. School became something to look forward to. “It was fun.”

Who knew?

“It’s a top school, it’s in our backyard, one of the top programs (in the country),” Bilkovski said. “Why would I not push him to come (to Queen’s)?”

VanderSpank has been playing football for three years. Last fall, on the first Erntstown team to win a county AA championship, he was a defensive end, an offensive lineman, a tight end, a slotback — “I never really left the field,” he said. At 6-foot-5, you can understand why.

“Because he was one of the bigger and stronger kids, they had to get their mileage out of him,” Gaels coach Pat Sheahan said.

VanderSpank’s intercollegiate future appears to be as a defensive end, and that suits him just fine.

“There’s a lot more energy on defence,” he said. “You make big hits. I love it.”

Sheahan said given VanderSpank’s frame and “great size potential” he is reminiscent of former Gael and retired pro Matt Kirk.

“He’s kind of a diamond in the rough because at Ernestown he had to do everything,” Sheahan said. “He’s going to be able to specialize here. I think he’s got a good learning curve once he can settle down and learn (just one) position.

“He was delighted to know he didn’t have to learn everything.”

The first player from his school to enter the Queen’s program — and just the second former Eagle to be part of a CIS team, though Greg Easterbrook never played at Toronto — Vanderspank said he doesn’t see himself as a vanguard for the fledgling Ernestown program. “I’m just looking forward to getting started,” he said.

That’s not how Bilkovski sees it. He says that by striving toward being more than just being good, VanderSpank exemplifies what he’s trying to accomplish at Ernestown.

“He’s going to be used as a constant example,” Bilkovski said.

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