By Jeanne Sager
PITTSBURGH, PA December 31, 2004 John DeGroat is like a kid in a candy store a big kid.
The 65 intimidator who took the Monticello High School Panthers to a Section IX title in 2002 is now part of another Panthers team on their way to a title (or at least hoping to make a four-peat out of the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournaments Sweet 16).
But the kid who left the small town for the big time is perhaps the most polite and down to earth player on the University of Pittsburgh mens team.
The 2002 Monticello graduate is slowly finding his niche on the court with the 10-0 Pittsburgh Panthers, after being recruited as an incoming junior to join the powerhouse Big East team just this past year.
For DeGroat, its like coming home.
Playing at Northeastern Colorado Junior College for two years to better his game, DeGroat was far from parents Thomas and Deborah Mack in Monticello and far from everything he ever knew (before moving to Sullivan County at age 13, he lived in Newburgh).
So when NCAA Division I schools like Gonzaga, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh came knocking, DeGroat was looking to head back east.
And thanks to a good showing at an all-star basketball camp in Tulsa, OK, last summer, he had the pick of the litter.
Suddenly, the kid who was the talk of the town in Monticello was the talk of the town across the country.
Every school in the country was calling for me, DeGroat recalled. Our answering machine was filled every night.
But DeGroat didnt get cocky he just wanted to play.
I knew I was good, he said sheepishly. But I never knew I was that good.
But with 900 Division I schools and probably 800 kids at the Tulsa camp, DeGroat knew hed hit the big time.
Its a feeling I cant describe, he said. Its just a crazy thought . . .
The choice finally came down to the Panthers a team DeGroat said offered a home vibe with a supportive coaching staff.
Out of my last five options, I just felt Pitt was a little more John DeGroat, he explained.
Since joining the team, DeGroat said hes seen its the place he needs to be.
DeGroat still remembers when he was bit by the basketball bug.
Although the 19-year-old (hell be 20 next month) has been talked up in Athlon Sports and other national publications for his blend of size and athleticism, DeGroat admits hes a relative newcomer to the game.
Ive only been playing basketball since I was a sophomore [at Monticello], he said. I didnt even start caring about sports until I moved to Monticello.
But with his height and agility combined with a strong work ethic, DeGroat was a natural.
DeGroats love of the game was fostered in the late night hours when he should have been snuggled in bed instead he was outside with older brother Jesse shooting basket after basket.
And his parents gave nothing but support even overlooking the late night hours to fuel their sons dreams.
DeGroat was soon showing his prowess on the Monticello court, developing as a player under the watchful eyes of longtime Panthers Coach Dick ONeill.
DeGroat was a pleasure to coach, ONeill said.
Besides being talented, he had a great personality, he explained.
DeGroat felt a strong respect for ONeill, who he still talks with on a regular basis.
He wasnt just a coach, he noted, but a guy you could talk to off the court. And if youre wrong, ONeills going to tell you, DeGroat said with a laugh.
Dont get on his bad side! he laughed. Really, hes a great coach . . . he knows his xs and os.
DeGroat thrived under ONeill, pulling himself up to become the teams top scorer by his senior year, leading the Panthers to a 21-3 record, the best in Monticello history and securing his own spot in school history by scoring his 1,000th point in 2002.
The next year he headed to Sterling, Colo. to join one of the nations better known basketball building junior college teams.
Although DeGroat says the team didnt win as much as he would have liked, he had fun and grew as a player, earning a ranking from NBAdraft.com as the nations number one junior college shooting guard.
And last summer things started to change for DeGroat, who had been dreaming of one day making the move to the big time.
Today, being part of the undefeated Panthers is like being part of something bigger than himself.
These guys, everybodys awesome, DeGroat said. Ive always played with great guys on every team Ive played on, but everybody here loves the game.
Its just a great feeling to put on a Division I jersey, step out onto a Division I court, play Division I ball, he said.
DeGroat hasnt had a lot of playing time, but hes scored on television, and hes making an impact.
Panthers Head Coach Jamie Dixon has had his eye on DeGroat for awhile.
He gives us perimeter shooting, offensive rebounding . . . and hes a physical player as well, Dixon said. He gives us a lot of good things.
We see him as a guy who just continues to get better as the year goes on, he added.
DeGroat said he just wants to contribute.
I dont have to score 20, 30 points, he said. I just want to contribute to the victory.
And while hes working toward a degree in administrational justice and balancing practice and road games with his studies, DeGroat is just having the time of his life.
Hes played in Madison Square Garden. Hes shaken national basketball commentator Dick Vitales hand and sat down to have a conversation with Dickie V.
Hes seen his name in ESPN the Magazine a college basketball preview on the Panthers said know what would be cool? if juco wing John DeGroat lived up to his scorers rep.
Hes even seen a player made in his image on college hoops video games.
And thats where John DeGroat is the kid from Monticello again hes not cocky, hes just on top of the world.
Thats just crazy, he said with a laugh. Its something since Ive been playing basketball that Ive dreamed about to be in a videogame, to see my name in a national magazine . . .
It just shows, dreams do come true if you work for them.
ONeill said dreams will come true for one of his most successful players because of what DeGroat is doing for himself.
We knew he had a God-given talent, but how far he was going to take it, we didnt know, ONeill said. Hes doing fine now, the harder he works, the more hell do.
What I expect him to do is get good grades and behave himself, and the basketball will take care of itself.
A short break for Christmas allowed DeGroat a trip home to see his family, and he was back in Pittsburgh this week for the Panthers Wednesday night match-up against the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.
Although DeGroat didnt see any playing time in the close game, folks will have another chance to check him out on Wednesday, Jan. 5, when the Panthers play Georgetown.
The game is scheduled to air on Fox Sports Net at 7 p.m. keep an eye out for number 0.