In so many ways, Ted Dongelmans personified the most successful men's basketball teams that Laurentian University has ever known. Along with the likes of Shawn Swords, Cory Bailey and so many others, the 6'10" native of Orillia helped lay claim to the only two Wilson Cup banners (OUA champions) that currently hang in the Ben Avery Gym.
"I had never played on a team that was the most talented team, but I had definitely played on some winning teams," Dongelmans said recently, explaining the fit with the Voyageurs following a two-year stint in Halifax with the Dalhousie Tigers. All of this, of course, comes on the heels of a very gradual progression in the sport of basketball for the 45 year-old OPP officer, a journey that featured his height, if not necessarily his skill, in the earliest of times.
"In grade seven, I was on every sports team - except for basketball," said Dongelmans. "I was tall then, but I wasn't exceptionally tall yet. For whatever reason, I had just not been introduced to basketball.
That would change, two years later, as would his perspective, as Dongelmans began to tower above teammates and opponents alike. "When I started to play basketball, I was lucky to have a good coach who gave me a chance. I think he kept me as the 15th guy on a roster of 15. I was horrible."
"I got stuffed by a chair in my first practice," Dongelmans laughed. "My coach put a chair on the floor, kind of as a block, and we were to dribble up to it and shoot behind it, and I quite literally lost the ball to the back of the chair. But I had finished grade eight at six feet tall, and finished grade nine at 6'6"."
In as much as you can't coach height, Dongelmans was going to enjoy at least the opportunity to try and develop. "Coach Ian MacMillan would take me aside at lunch and I would work on no dribble layups. I would do that every day at lunch. By grade 11, I remember getting into games and doing a few things."
"I started to get better and actually liking it. Before that, I really just did it because I was supposed to. But I was still really light and really uncoordinated - but I was getting there."
Indeed he was.
By the time he had completed his OAC's, Dongelmans would be approached by a majority of Canadian universities, even drawing some interest south of the border. Though a weekend recruitment trip to Halifax on CIS Final Eight weekend sealed the deal for Dalhousie (and understandably so, the city a veritable mecca of basketball over that 4-5 day stretch), it wasn't long before the Ontario native was having second thoughts.
"When I got there, I realized the basketball was just not a good fit for me," he said. "I spent about half that season injured - repetitive stress injuries. Basically, I over-trained. I wasn't physically strong enough, at that time, to handle the training that we were doing. I had some success, but I wasn't happy."
"But I did enough that year to know that I belonged."
Laurentian head coach Peter Campbell knew it as well. The very first person who even approached Dongelmans, as a prospect, way back when the young man was only in grade nine, the highly respected L.U. basketball mentor clearly had the inside track as he attempted to lure the big man to northern Ontario.
"I realized that I had made a mistake in not playing for coach Campbell, just because I knew him the best of all the coaches that had recruited me."
Yet in wasn't just the coach that would make the home of the Voyageurs the place to be. It was everything about that team, the collection of talent that would go on to journey where no Laurentian men's basketball team had journeyed before.
"I knew they were good," Dongelmans reminisced. "But what I knew even more than that was that this team was going to play hard and tough - and that's what I was looking for. I knew that LU was a hard-nosed team that could win by playing together."
Campbell and company needed more size. The fact that their new "big" really blossomed as this crew ascended to the very top of the provincial class, for the very first time ever in 1997-1998, well, that just made the experience all the more meaningful, for all of those involved.
"I really caught my stride that year," said Dongelmans. "Before that, I didn't really know what my game was. But I remember playing against the alumni, in our very first game. There was a moment in that game where I was running down the floor. We get into a set and I posted up hard, because I really wanted the ball."
"I caught the pass and did a really nice post move. As I am running back down the court, it occurred to me that I actually did exactly what I had wanted to do. I actually had control of my body, for the first time in my life."
Two years later, in 1999-2000, the Voyageurs would again capture the OUA crown. From 1997 through to 2000, Dongelmans would be awarded the E.C. Lebel Plaque, presented to the OUA East MVP three times. He was named to the all-Canadian team on three occasions, cracking the lineup of the #1 squad in each of his final two years in Sudbury. In three of his four years at Laurentian, his team would qualify for nationals.
Looking back, however, it was shared accomplishments that rank among his source of greatest pride. "My wife, Stephanie (Harrison), was also recognized as a three time all-Canadian and two time OUA East Player of the Year," said Dongelmans. "We not only had almost the same individual recognition, in terms of awards, but our stats are very similar also."
"I think I out-rebounded her by one or one and a half rebounds per game, but she outshot me from the floor by about 5%."
Following their graduation, the couple travelled to Europe, for a couple of years, splitting their time between pro basketball teams in both Switzerland and France before making the decision to head back to Canada. "I had seen the guys who were still playing at age 45, in pain and not making a whole lot of money, and I knew that I wasn't going to be that guy."
A four year stint as a correctional officer in Victoria Harbour would lay the foundation of a move back to Orillia, as both Dongelmans and Harrison, long since married, immersed themselves in the coaching ranks and administrative duties with the Orillia Lakers.
And if the end goal is to produce young athletes with the same kind of mental toughness and tenacity that became the lasting resume of Dongelmans and the rest of the wonderful era of Laurentian basketball that was 1997 to 2000, well, it seems everyone is quite fine with that.