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What it Took: A Tale of Triumph

My first day at SUNY New Paltz (as a sophomore – I transferred) was about 5 years ago. While exploring the campus, I headed to the athletic and wellness center to check out the gym. I unexpectedly ran into CJ Borfitz, Steven Gassert, Steve Woessner and Jake Roessler getting a workout in. These were the team seniors at the time, and they were very welcoming (to say the least). Their efforts in the weight room and getting after it in their free time showed a lot of what the New Paltz volleyball mentality is like — 1% better every day. I still look back at this first New Paltz memory because the example that these guys set in that moment inspired me to be an effective teammate and leader for the future. From the first day I was on campus, I knew I belonged there.

Later that year, we found ourselves competing in the 2017 National Championship against Springfield College. The experience in the championship was surreal — 2,000 fans packed into Springfield’s gym (yes, they had home court advantage), with 95% of them rooting against us. We loved every second of it. After taking the first set from the undefeated Springfield team, they would go on to win the next 3 to win the title. Even though this was a tough loss, it was a magical year (“catch the magic”) that taught me a lot about New Paltz volleyball. This experience made each of us hungrier to get back on that stage again and win one for ourselves.

Fall semester of my senior year. I could sense something was coming that I had been waiting for — it was my time to step up and be a leader for this New Paltz Men’s Volleyball team. That semester we voted for team captains, and Matt Grace and I were nominated by the team. One big thing for me was that I always wanted to lead by example, not just words — as the seniors did that first day on campus. I made it a priority to go to serve/receive every morning to get more reps, to be a leader in the weight room, organize team events (team hangouts, team yoga) and make a direct impact on the “youngers” by talking to them individually about their schoolwork, life, etc. Everyone wanted to bring this team back to the top, where New Paltz belongs, and it was the job of Matt and I, the leaders, to make that happen.

A lot can be said about the season we had that year. We were far from perfect. We had seven losses, one of them to an unranked Hunter team.  At one point in the season, we had such a bad practice I had to say something.

I was choking up. I was speaking from the heart, and I think the guys noticed. I remember saying “Look, this was a horrible lift and practice. The effort we are putting in in the gym is nowhere close to where it needs to be. Nobody cared today and it showed. On Monday, I expect 100% effort. If you do not want to give 100%, don’t show up. Simple as that. You are off the team. I don’t care if I’m the only one here on Monday, I‘ll play alone. I’m sick of it.” Everyone showed up on Monday, and the passion was much stronger that day than it was on Friday. I like to think that the “youngers” learned from that, with the lesson being that their time in New Paltz does in fact come to an end eventually.

It can get emotional when you think about the end of it all. So, instead of being sad about it, do something about it. Put the work in, not for yourself, but for the guys around you, the guys whose days are more limited than yours. We came together and put in the effort, knowing that the only thing we have complete control over in our lives is effort. This made us better, and we worked hard to get back into the NCAA’s.

We were playing against Endicott in the NCAA quarterfinals. It was set 5, and the referee whistled to switch sides. We were down 8-2. The Endicott players were pumping up the raucous crowd that had been roaring all evening. The Gulls were ready to pack their bags for Union, NJ and move on to the Division III Men’s Volleyball National Semifinal. The New Paltz families in the stands sensed their season was coming to an end. Hearts were on the verge of breaking, tears on the verge of being shed — unless we did something about it. Endicott was up 12-7 in the later stage of the set, and the hopes of a comeback were dwindling. The last thing we were going to do was give up.

Kobe Bryant once said, “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” Our team knew how to fight for every point, we knew how to stick together in tough situations. This was our time to rise. After a series of plays, with kills from Smith and O’Malley, backed by Matt Grace at the service line, we cut the lead and tied the ball game at 13-13. The Hawks and Gulls were clawing for every point, giving everything to keep their seasons alive. Up 18-17, I was on the line to serve. The ball trickled over the net and nearly fell to the ground but was kept alive by the Gulls. They could only manage to send over a free ball to our side — this was the moment we fought for. Rob Nolan took the free ball, Matt Grace with the set, and Nick Smith put it away. Yes, this was a spectacular ending, but it was only the beginning.

After our victory over Endicott in the quarterfinals of NCAA’s, we were headed to Union, NJ. That night, we went to Applebee’s and told the waitress that it was Radu’s (head coach) birthday. Let’s just say his face was beet red moments later when the workers were singing to him with a chocolate mousse cake sitting in front of him. Despite the fooling around, this was a business trip. For us members of the 2017 team, it was time to finish what we had started. For the guys who joined after, it was time for them to make their own mark on the legacy of New Paltz Volleyball.

Who were we playing in the Semifinals? Of course… Springfield College. The team that we lost to in 2017. The team that I was 0-8 against in my college career before this matchup. It was almost as if we had to overcome a mental barrier in that match to beat the Pride team that had dominated us the previous two and a half years. That night, we overcame. Not only did that record change to 1-8, but we were going to the National Championship. To this day, my teammates and I always say, those 8 don’t matter anymore. We have the 1.

Then came the magical day. It was April 27th, 2019. We were playing against UC Santa Cruz for the Division III Men’s Volleyball National Championship. We all spent so much time giving endless hours to the game for this moment. Going into this match, we knew we were the better team. We just had to prove it.

For me, I had one opportunity left to leave everything I had on the court. Being a senior, I knew that after this match I would walk off the court either a national champion or a two-time runner up. When the match began, I was overwhelmed with emotions — nervous, excited and anxious all at the same time. The first couple points were ugly, but once we got settled in, we were playing fun, high-level volleyball. I enjoyed every moment. I can truly say that I left everything I had on the court.

That evening we won the National Championship in 4 sets over Santa Cruz. We hit .362% as a team and Aaron won the MVP Trophy. The individual stats of the game didn’t matter, what mattered in that moment was being by the side of my teammates and finishing what we had started. What mattered was being able to look at my brothers on and off the court and realizing we overcame the trials and tribulations of the season. What mattered was being able to look up at my family, friends and alumni during the match and being reminded of how so many of them contributed to my journey. What mattered was that we didn’t walk off of the court as two-time runner-ups, but as national champions.

So, what did it take to go the distance? It took a culture. It took the guys that came before us that built up a way of life that we had to buy into and step into. It took individual effort. Each person on the team (and coaches) had to do their job. Without each guy being aware of and striving for the same goal, we would not have been able to get it done. It took putting in more time than our opponents. This came in the form of off-season training, extra serve/receive time during the season and diligent lifting time. Lastly, it took grit — not giving up in the moments where it can seem so easy to.

So, what came next? First, loved ones, including family, friends and alumni ran down to celebrate with us. I received congratulatory texts from people I haven’t talked to in years as well as lifelong friends. Later that night came a well-deserved celebration we will never forget (and barely remember). Weeks later, we went skydiving, had phone calls with various news outlets, and simply enjoyed the beauty of a Spring in New Paltz. It is safe to say that I enjoyed every last moment in the most beautiful place on earth. ‘Til this day, I know that one of the greatest decisions of my life was to transfer to New Paltz.

These days, when I see a team that wins a national championship, it brings me joy for them. I know the difficulties it takes to get there. It makes me happy that any team gets to experience the pure, raw, happiness that we did. Those memories last a lifetime. Very few people can call themselves a national champion. While it is an honor to be able to call myself one, it is an even greater honor to be a part of a community, a family, a legacy, a culture and a brotherhood; known as New Paltz Volleyball. There is only one SUNY New Paltz, and I am proud to call myself a Hawk for life.

Get after it.

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