Belgium players lift their teams

Kristian Pope

Not regarded as a volleyball hotbed, the country of Belgium is making an impact on the Big Ten.
Take Saturday’s game at the Sports Pavilion. Sure, there were players from Minnesota and Ohio State’s rosters who hail from the sunny beaches of California.
But what about Bredene and Westmalle, Belgium?
If you looked at the game programs during the Gophers match with the Buckeyes, that’s what you would have seen.
That’s because Katrien DeDecker of Minnesota and Vanessa Wouters of Ohio State — both natives of Belgium — are living out successful careers in the Midwest.
And even though their hometowns are separated by a 90-minute train ride, both DeDecker and Wouters are all too familiar with one another.
“That was very cool playing against her,” DeDecker said of Wouters. “It gave me an extra boost.”
Familiar, yes. But this match was their very first head-to-head meeting.
“I knew it would be hard,” said Wouters, a 6-foot-2 junior outside hitter. “It was going to be Belgium vs. Belgium. Kind of like, `Let’s see what happens.'”
Both know each other from their days on the Belgium Junior National team back in 1991. Since then, being teammates and playing head-to-head has eluded the two. Until now.
Sure people in Belgium play volleyball. But few had ever ventured to the United States, DeDecker said. That is, until she took the challenge and came to Minnesota in 1992.
Her impact has been felt around the conference. This year she is an All-America candidate.
DeDecker, a 6-2 senior outside hitter, said she has tried to get others to follow her from her native country. Few have.
“I’ve asked them, but they don’t want to,” she said. “Only Vanessa was interested.”
That’s when a Belgium coach took a job at Southwest Missouri State and recruited Wouters to the States.
After a year at that school, DeDecker urged Wouters to come to the Big Ten.
“I talked with her on the phone about coming (to the conference),” DeDecker said. “She’s better than the level of play at Southwest Missouri.”
So what about that first head-to-head matchup? Both players led their teams. Wouters had 22 kills, 9 digs and 2 blocks, while DeDecker had 25 kills, 7 digs and 2 blocks.
Not bad for Belgium volleyball.